Scottish white ethnic revivalism and usable pasts in Alexandria, Virginia

October 13, 2017
By: Krystyn Moon
The Lee-Jackson Parade in January 2017. Photo credit: Julia Rendleman /New York Times.

Although the commemoration of the “Lost Cause” is often the focus of today’s discussions of white supremacy, these celebrations are not the only usable past embraced in the United States to promote a racist agenda.[1]

The New York Times in January 2017 published an article about the competing Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackson-Lee Day Parades in Lexington, Virginia, and included a photo with a unnamed person wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes.[2] While bagpipers are frequently hired to play at the funerals of American soldiers, firefighters, and police officers, they—along with other Scottish tropes—have a unique relationship to Confederate heritage events. Celeste Ray, in her anthropological work on Scottish clan organizers, notes that, while these groups cultivate a noble, but tragic, warrior image as part of their celebrations, some white participants conflate the tragedy of Scottish defeat with the demise of the Confederacy.[3]

The use of cultural trappings to promote both ethnic identity and whiteness in the U.S. South is not new. Since World War II, white Southerners have participated in their own versions of ethnic revivalism, focusing on Scottish migration during the colonial period as opposed to later waves of European and Asian immigration as seen elsewhere in the United States. Clan organizations have required genealogical documentation to become members; however, Scottish heritage events have traditionally been public. These activities allowed non-members,  particularly those who identify as white and middle class, to enjoy being ethnic while maintaining their racial identity.

Photo Collage from the Saint Andrew’s Society of Washington, DC’s Monthly Newsletter (January 1972)

Public celebrations of Scottish heritage in the U.S. South also emerged at the same time that many African Americans were fighting not only to break down the formal structures of segregation, but also to have their stories (and those of their ancestors) incorporated into American history.

In Alexandria, Virginia, which I have researched, Carlton A. Funn, a local elementary school teacher, began collecting documents and objects related to African American history in 1956 to incorporate into his classes. In a later interview, he stated: “[t]he Virginia history textbook in use then made no mention of the contributions of black Americans… and I wanted the black children in my class to leave my room at the end of the year with positive self-esteem, able to raise their heads high and be proud of themselves.”[4] By 1970, Funn’s collection led to presentations and exhibits teaching a broader audience about the contributions of African Americans and other marginalized groups.

Welcome sign for Alexandria, Virginia featuring a thistle

White business owners and government officials in Alexandria, however, did not support events tied to African American history, which they believed only hurt their bottom lines. For them, the Scottish Christmas Walk, an invented celebration for the local chapter of the YWCA, was much more appealing to white, middle-class consumers in the 1970s. City boosters also embraced the Walk as a way to revitalize Alexandria’s downtown through a consumerist-vision of ethnic identity. Throughout the 1970s, Alexandria reveled in its Scottish past, hosting Virginia’s Highland Games, pursuing a Scottish sister-city agreement, and even incorporating the thistle into its official signage.

Van that struck “Appomattox,” in August 1988, Alexandria Gazette

Alexandria’s emphasis on its white and Scottish identities, however, faced additional challenges within the next decade. A growing number of African American and immigrant residents demanded the inclusion of their histories in the city’s narrative. While their multicultural imagining made inroads in the early-to-mid 1980s, it was not until a drunk driver hit “Appomattox,” the city’s Confederate memorial, that sizable municipal monies finally went toward the memorialization of Alexandria’s African American history for the first time.[5]

By 1995, Alexandria’s African American Heritage Park opened to the public with much fanfare. Confederate events also continued on a smaller scale, reflecting what city leaders believed to be a “sign of Alexandria’s tolerance.”[6] Meanwhile, the Scottish Christmas Walk evolved into a fundraiser for a local social services organization and increasingly reflected the community it served, including African Americans and immigrants, many of whom were refugees. Alexandria’s memorialization practices expanded by the 1990s; however, the mechanism that had marginalized African Americans in the past received little public scrutiny.  Government officials tried to appease all residents without infringing on anyone’s identity politics.

Alexandria Christmas Walk

While Lexington’s Jackson-Lee Parade has maintained the tradition of conflating the Confederacy and Scotland together, Alexandria’s Scottish Christmas Walk has evolved into something quite distinct, playing to another usable past that explicitly recognizes the potential fantastic qualities of heritage celebrations. Although the Walk continues to recognize those Scots who settled in Alexandria in the eighteenth century, it arguably has more in common with Comic-Con today.

[1] Although beyond the purpose of this blog post, medievalists are also debating the use of their work by white supremacists, and whether they have a responsibility to denounce such practices.  J. Clara Chan, “Medievalists, Recoiling from White Supremacy, Try to Diversify the Field,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 16, 2017; Nick Roll, “A Schism in Medieval Studies, for All to See,” Insider Higher Ed, September 19, 2017.

[2] Caitlin Dickerson, “A New Martin Luther King Jr. Parade Divides a Virginia Town,” New York Times January 16, 2017,

[3] Celeste Ray, Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[4] Joan Matthews, “Virginia News Section,” Washington Informer, August 14, 1980, 18.

[5]  Kent Jenkins Jr., “Toppling of Alexandria Confederate Memorial Reopens Old Wounds,” Washington Post August 23, 1988, B1; Sandra Evans, “Park Pays Homage to Alexandria Past,” Washington Post July 6, 1995, VA1D.

[6] Steve Bates, “Confederate Banners Raise Few Red Flags,” Washington Post May 16, 1996, VA1A.

Krystyn Moon

Krystyn Moon is Associate Professor and Program Director of American Studies at the University of Mary Washington. She is the author of Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s. Her JAEH article, “The Alexandria YWCA: Race, and Urban (and Ethnic) Revival: The Scottish Christmas Walk, 1960s- 1970s." won the 2016-2017 Carlton C. Qualey Memorial Article Award.

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