WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: U.S. Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Robert Wilkie testifies during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on suicide among veterans on June 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Photo: Zach Gibson
Photo: Zach Gibson

VA secretary visiting Dayton military cemetery criticized for pro-Confederacy comments

Robert Wilkie, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, will visit the campus of the Dayton VA Medical Center today.

Wilkie, who became secretary almost a year ago, has come under fire for pro-Confederacy comments and speeches he made in the past.

The current Dayton VA campus was originally home to a hospital for veterans of the Civil War, several of which are buried in the adjacent Dayton National Cemetery.

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In a 1995 speech, Wilkie praised Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, as a “martyr to the lost cause,” reports The Washington Post. Wilkie also reportedly described Davis as an “exceptional man in an exceptional age though he did call slavery a “stain on our story as it is a stain on every civilization in history.”

Wilkie’s ancestors fought for the Confederacy, according to the Post. As recently as 2005, Wilkie was a guest at annual memorial ceremonies hosted by Confederate descendants around Davis’ birthday, the Post reports.

Wilkie visited the Columbus VA in October and was at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center on Thursday before coming to Dayton, said Ted Froats, spokesperson for the Dayton VAMC.

“This is just a standard visit, typical of new secretaries getting to know the facilities he oversees,” Froats said via email.

The Dayton VA Medical Center’s campus was originally the location of the Central Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. It opened in Dayton in 1867 and was the third of its kind to house and care for veterans of the Civil War, according to the National Cemetery Administration.

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Three Civil War veterans, all Union soldiers, who received the Medal of Honor are buried in what eventually became the Dayton National Cemetery. They include Army Lt. Henry W. Downs, Navy Seaman John H. James and Army Pvt. Charles A. Taggart.

Army Pvt. Joshua Dubar, a former slave who served in the all-black 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was buried in Dayton National Cemetery in 1885. He was the father of famed poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The Confederacy is a symbol that has “always represented more than ancestral pride” and is “extremely hurtful,” said Derrick Foward, president of the Dayton chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Foward said he hopes that while Wilkie is in town that he will refrain from using pro-Confederacy rhetoric he’s used in the past.

“It’s frankly hurtful to millions of Americans,” Foward said. “To know that it is being promoted by any arm of the United States government is all the more hurtful.”

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