HONORED IN SUFFOLK
Appeared Sunday, October 24, 1999
By Linda McNatt
On a gentle knoll surrounded by the woods and cotton fields of Skeetertown on Saturday, the allegiance and honor of a humble Suffolk farmer was compared to that of Civil War General Robert E. Lee.
''I believe that Jason Boone gave his service to this cause because he loved his home and loved his neighbors,'' said F. Lee Hart IV, commander of the Tom Smith Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans. ''He saw this war as an attack on his home, and, like Robert E. Lee, he refused to raise his sword against his state.''
Boone was a landowner, twice married, father of 30 children. For three years, beginning in 1862, he served in the 41st Virginia Infantry, Company K, Confederate States of America. He was considered a specialist in the building of breastworks - a defensive low wall used in battle - or trenches.
In 1924, at the age of 93, he was granted a pension of $ 6 a month, which he received until his death at the age of 105.
Boone was a free-born black, and for what is thought to be the first time for a black Confederate soldier in Virginia, he was honored on this autumn day with a ceremony and a memorial for his courage.
Boone's great-granddaughter, Katheryne B. Hamilton, who was born in Suffolk and now lives in Portsmouth, brought the event together.
But not without some misgivings, she said.
''When I first started thinking about it, some of my family members said, 'Definitely not,' '' Hamilton said. ''But I have always been so proud of Jason Boone. He was independent. He was a landowner. He was the father of 30 children, married to the mothers of them all. He worked hard and raised those children.''
And, when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Boone was living on his farm in Skeetertown, a mixed neighborhood of free blacks and white landowners. Boone's farm remained in family hands until 1981.
''When his neighbors were going to war, these were men he hunted with, fished with, worked with,'' she said. ''I believe he did what he felt he had to do. What do I have not to be proud of?''
Hamilton was searching for her family roots more than a year ago when she read a newspaper article about Hart's efforts to preserve Suffolk's historic Cedar Hill Cemetery. She called to tell him that her great-grandfather served with the South.
''He asked me if my great-grandfather had a headstone,'' Hamilton said. ''At that time, I didn't even know where he was buried.''
When she found his grave in Landa Cemetery, near the Suffolk Airport, she contacted Hart again, and that's when he offered a monument for her grandfather's grave.
After months of preparation, about 100 people - blacks as well as whites, all with a shared heritage - came together to honor a soldier of the Confederacy.
''I am a historian, and today, history is being made,'' said Edward C. Smith, a history professor at American University in Washington, who spoke at the ceremony. ''I can't imagine the times that this man heard, 'Jason, you're fighting on the wrong side.' Why would a black Southerner, especially a Virginian, fight for the Confederacy?''
Smith has made black history in America his lifelong work and has written several books on the subject. Slavery, he said, was an important part of the Civil War, but it did not start it. Slavery, in fact, was not abolished in the nation's capital until April 1862, a year after the war started.
''History is not what we want the past to be,'' he said. ''History is what the past was. We read into the past prejudices of the present. Why would Mr. Boone fight for the South? He was a Southern patriot.''
Smith called Saturday's event the fulfillment of the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. longed for.
''You see it, right here, today,'' he said. And he called Hamilton a hero in her own right.
''I never thought I would see this,'' he said, after a cannon salute to Boone and after ''Taps'' was played. ''It's not that blacks today don't know this part of their history, but they don't respect it. Mrs. Hamilton has turned a corner.''
Boone, Hamilton said, was descended from Joe Skeeter, an English land surveyor who settled Skeetertown, near the Dismal Swamp. Apparently Skeeter had two interracial marriages. His daughter, Patsy, was Jason's mother.
Hamilton said that, today, Skeeter's descendants live both as black and white. ''I'm black, and I'm proud of it,'' she said. ''But I don't think I'm African. How often do any of us see a real African today? I'm an American, and I think it's time that we all begin to take pride in our American heritage.''
Wiping tears from her eyes on Saturday, with many members of her family sitting before her, Hamilton said that she felt Jason Boone was there with them, and he would have been proud, too.
And in another history-making gesture, the Sons of Confederate Veterans presented the Confederate flag - the flag that has stirred such controversy in recent months from both a political and racial standpoint - the flag that had been laying throughout the ceremonies across Jason Boone's grave - to his family.
And it was accepted