Ron Lee Moore Photo by Jay Paul
Long before the Stars and Bars unfurled to a mix of rebel yells and frustrated groans on a wooded lot barely visible to passing Interstate 95 traffic, there was Ron Lee Moore.
Moore protested the absence of the Confederate flag on museum grounds when the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts reopened in 2010 — a year earlier than the Virginia Flaggers began making their stand, marching most days in front of the VMFA and, in September, raising their banner just off the highway in Chester.
Most recently, Moore, a local artist and amateur historian, has been waging a pitched (if one-sided) battle with the VMFA — and the nearby Virginia Historical Society (VHS) — not only to restore the Confederate battle flag to the grounds,but to win one final major battle for the Confederacy. "I'm not budging — this is American history," Moore says.
Specifically, Moore intends one day to plant his own Confederate battle flag on the grounds of both museums. He claims the entire property is the rightful home — all but stolen by the state — of the mostly forgotten R.E. Lee Camp Confederate Memorial Park and the Confederate Battle Abbey.
Moore comes prepared for battle. Emptying a backpack full of carefully researched records, legal documents and architectural renderings under the shaded portico of the neoclassical VHS building at 428 N. Boulevard, he points up at what he says is certain proof of his argument, etched forever in stone.
"Up there it says ‘Confederate Memorial Institute,'" Moore says. He describes the museum's modern use as a repository of Virginia history from present day back to prehistoric times as "a conflagration of history" and the current dispute over the Confederate flag in Chester an unnecessary distraction for Southern sympathizers like the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The raft of research he's done is, he says, irrefutable proof that the state of Virginia, the Historical Society and the VMFA have colluded to wipe from memory the 25-acre property's original purpose as a home for retired soldiers and a state park dedicated to the Confederacy. "It's important for the Sons of Confederate Veterans to get their heads out of their rears and be where they belong," Moore says, frustrated with the group, claiming it should still have a valid and vested interest in the VHS property and grounds rather than settling for a lease on the Confederate Memorial Chapel located behind the museum.
Records indeed show the VHS property was originally deeded by a 1910 act of the Virginia General Assembly to the Mississippi-based Confederate Memorial Association and the R.E. Lee Camp of a group then called the United Confederate Veterans. Those records also show the General Assembly's 1884 charter creating the R.E. Lee Camp, No. 1, Confederate Veterans, allowing it to locate a home for infirm and indigent soldiers on the grounds. Those soldiers lived until 1942 in a house on the property today known as the Robinson House.
The 1910 act gave little more than 6 acres of what was then the state-maintained R.E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers' Home for the construction of the Confederate Memorial Institute, later popularly known as the Confederate Battle Abbey. That much is most certainly true, according to all modern parties involved, as is 1934 legislation that allowed for the creation of both the VMFA and for the R.E. Lee Camp Confederate Memorial Park.
And there's a 1954 General Assembly act stipulating that "no building shall be erected north of the new wing now under construction for the [VMFA] and … It is further provided that a bronze tablet shall be erected by the Museum at the entrance to such property bearing the inscription "R.E. Lee Camp Confederate Memorial Park." The bronze tablet, Moore notes, is there, though it was moved a few dozen feet to the north during the 2010 VMFA expansion.
From there, the story becomes a tangled web. Its span of more than a century comprises attorney general opinions and terse correspondence among state officials and various parties representing the R.E. Lee Camp, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and representatives of the Historical Society and the art museum. It even draws into the fray famous Richmond figures like Douglas Southall Freeman, Gov. Garland Pollard and even Gov. L. Douglas Wilder — the latter of whom, according to records, used an opportunity in the mid-1990s, when the state was inventorying its property, to surplus the remnants of the R.E. Lee Camp Memorial Park to the VMFA.
But what all of Moore's research means today is not much, according to state and museum officials. "Some of Virginia's most qualified legal minds of the 1940s were involved in the negotiations between the Virginia Historical Society and the Confederate Memorial Association," says VHS President and CEO Paul Levengood, responding by email to Moore's claims, and referring to the 1946 merger of the two organizations. "The VHS is confident that we are in no way in violation of charters, legal agreements or contracts regarding that negotiation."
Similarly, the VMFA says Moore's arguments are baseless beyond providing an interesting trip down memory lane for the 25-acre property that today is shared by the VMFA, the VHS, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Confederate Chapel. The art museum even used many of the same documents in its recently successful application to win its designation by the Virginia Department of Historic
Resources of the Robinson House as a state historic landmark, according to Stephen Bonadies, the museum's chief conservator and deputy director for collections management.
Moore remains undeterred, however. He says a recent redoubling of his efforts to restore the property to its past use as a park commemorating the Confederacy is in part inspired by rumors and media reports of a possible reconfiguration that would combine the operations of the Museum of the Confederacy with those of the Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.
Also of concern, says Moore, is the VMFA's plan to renovate the Robinson House, which once housed Confederate memorabilia that included the taxidermic horse of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Moore contends plans to convert the house into a visitors' center fly in the face of the house's historic relevance. He says all claims of modern legitimacy to the entire Lee Camp property ended in 1992, when Wilder "did a trick move" by designating the in-use grounds of the R.E. Lee Camp Memorial Park as surplus property and moving them from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation's oversight to the control of the Department of Education.
In pursuit of his claims, Moore says, he's taken his argument — and his raft of supporting documentation — straight to the governor's office. There, he says, he was referred to Charles James Sr., the assistant secretary of administration under Gov. Bob McDonnell, and received assurances that his points were valid — and that James might even step in.
"He told me that he could issue a stop-work order" on the Robinson House, says Moore, recounting a three-way conversation with James that also included Mike Pullen, division commander of the Virginia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Not so, says James. "I didn't validate his claim — that would be his dream come true. I validated that I understood his position. That's different." As to a stop-work order, James says, he has no such plan — and may not even have any such authority. He's also unwilling to concede that the current use of the R.E. Lee Camp Confederate Memorial Park, as grounds for two of the state's most beloved and celebrated museums, is somehow illegal or illegitimate. Of Moore's insistence that the Sons of Confederate Veterans should have primary control of everything but the VMFA building, James says, "The official position of the Commonwealth for a number of years is they do not [have a valid claim]."
James says he's examined Moore's exhaustive documentation: "I got a headache reading it — I even tried drawing charts." In the end, he says, the weakest contention of all is that Wilder improperly shifted the property from the control of one state agency to another. "It's like moving a sofa from one room to another," he says. "It doesn't change anything."
But it's not the only irrelevant fact, James says. "It's a tortured argument that just goes on. They're passionate about it, but I don't know that they're historically and legally accurate about it."
Moore says he remains determined to move mountains if necessary to restore the property — and the Confederacy — to its place of honor in the public consciousness. "If I had my druthers, they'd need to preserve these buildings exactly as they were given to the state," Moore says, particularly perturbed that the VHS' permanent exhibit includes a replica of the controversial (among Confederate history champions) Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue.
"Somebody has an agenda, and it's not fair — these buildings are here to commemorate the people of the South," he says. "I want them to put the [Confederate] flag back up.