Even though the Civil War ended generations ago, a property tax detail buried in Alabama's constitution still sets aside nearly half a million dollars a year for Confederate veterans' pensions. Money that once funded the Alabama Confederate Soldiers' Home--which lost its last veteran in 1934 and has since been razed--is now safely set aside for the Confederate Memorial Park. Created on the 100th anniversary of the Civil War in 1964, the 102-acre tract of land contains two cemeteries with 313 graves, a small museum of artifacts, manicured lawns and countless Confederate flags. The Associated Press reports:
These days, 150 years after the Civil War started, officials say the old tax typically brings in more than $400,000 annually for the park, where Confederate flags flapped on a recent steamy afternoon. That's not much compared to Alabama's total operating budget of $1.8 billion, but it's sufficient to give the park plenty of money to operate and even enough for investments, all at a time when other historic sites are struggling just to keep the grass cut for lack of state funding.
"It's a beautifully maintained park. It's one of the best because of the funding source," said Clara Nobles of the Alabama Historical Commission, which oversees Confederate Memorial Park.
Longtime park director Bill Rambo is more succinct.
"Everyone is jealous of us," he said.
One black Democrat who's served in the state Legislature since 1974 says he had no idea that the park continued to receive funding from the state. This isn't too difficult to believe given the political complications of the park's funding. The Confederate Widows' Pension Fund that supplies the park's funding is written into Alabama's 1901 Constitution. At that point in time, the tax structure allowed for a maximum of 6.5 mills for state property taxes--1 of which went to support Confederate veterans. As veterans died off, the money was rerouted and eventually ended up funding the Confederate Memorial Park. Funding remains flush for the park while other historical sites suffer in Alabama. The local Anniston Star newspaper reports:
Earlier this month, Gov. Robert Bentley unveiled his proposed budget for 2012, a budget designed to reflect post-recession belt-tightening. Bentley completely eliminated state funding for about 200 agencies and positions; and many historic sites were on the chopping block. Bentley’s proposed budget completely eliminates state funding for the Aliceville POW Museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Helen Keller’s birthplace, Jesse Owens Park, the Nat King Cole Project and several other history-related institutions.
But funding for the Confederate Memorial Park is enshrined in law, and there seems to be no political will to touch it.
Attempts by the governor to eliminate the fund and possibly shutter the park have been met with resistance from state legislators, locals and most especially, the politically powerful Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"It's foolish to propose closing sites like that, when the Legislature is promoting (Confederate-related) tourism," Leonard Wilson, a past division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told the Anniston Star in March.
Indeed tourism does bring some people to the Confederate Memorial Park. Rambo says the park receives about 10,000 visitors a year, who each pay a $5 admission fee, and an additional 30,000 who pay no fee whatsoever. All of them give "rave reviews" and the park has "plenty" of money, says Rambo. Despite the controversy, however, Rambo insists that it would be a mistake to cut off funding.
“If it wasn’t for the way we’re funded, this story wouldn’t be told,” said Rambo. “The kids in school are only getting one side (of the Civil War)--the winner’s side.”