Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 110 / Number 4
Flag-Waving Wahoos: Confederate Symbols at the University of Virginia, 1941–51
- By Christopher C. Nehls, pp. 461–88
Before the beginning of Massive Resistance to the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1950s, popular usage of the
Confederate battle flag retained a more ambiguous meaning as a symbol of white southern identity. As it escaped the
exclusive context of Lost Cause commemorative display in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, the flag increasingly reflected
contemporary issues facing the South as the United States become more culturally homogenous and socially integrated.
In the hands of young people on segregated college campuses or on the battlefields of World War II, where white
southern manhood faced new challenges, the flag became an icon of an imagined genteel warrior class.
At the University of Virginia the all-male, all-white undergraduate student body adopted the practice of waving the
Confederate battle flag at football games against northern rivals in the 1940s. After suffering decades of losing seasons,
University of Virginia students sought a symbol to represent the school's arrival as a competitor on the gridiron against
traditionally stronger northern schools like Princeton, Harvard, and Pennsylvania. The flag represented Virginia students'
assertion of their regional identity while seeking mastery of a northern game that remained the embodiment of manly
virtue. Virginia fans' behavior received national attention when the university's football squad played the first integrated
college football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line in 1947 against Harvard. While not the same overt embrace of
white supremacy as Confederate flag displays at the University of Mississippi in the late 1940s, University of Virginia
fans' waving of the battle flag at football games against northern teams carried an implicit defense of segregation. Virginia
fans' usage, however, demonstrates the cultural complexity the Confederate battle flag held in the decades before the
formal beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.