Historian: Anthony Cohen has just joioned the Sons of Confederate Veterans. If you ask him what he thinks of the Confederate flag on license plates, he'll tell you the MVA is wrong.


February 13, 1997|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

The message on Anthony Cohen's answering machine offers a number of options:

"To book a lecture, press one."

"For fax, e-mail or address, press two."

"For mailing list, press three."

"For calendar of events, press four."

"For interviews, press five." All right, we'll bite. "Leave name, office number and home number. If you are calling long distance, I will call you back collect due to the high volume of calls I've been getting. Thank you."

Interested in getting together with Cohen this month? Don't even think about it. "I have no available dates left this month," the machine informs callers in a stern, no-nonsense voice.

So who is Anthony Cohen and why is he so darn busy? Cohen is a historian. Ho-hum. He is a writer. OK. And he is the first African-American member of the Maryland chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Oh! That Tony Cohen.

Yes, that Tony Cohen.

Last month, as you might remember, the Sons of Confederate Veterans went to war with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration over 78 license plates bearing a small image of the Confederate battle flag. The state decided to revoke the special plates because of public outrage over the use of the symbol. The Sons told MVA officials they will see them in court.

It was in the midst of this flap that Cohen up and joined the Sons during their annual Lee and Jackson Day ceremony Jan. 18. Members of the organization raised the Confederate flag, sang "Dixie," and added Anthony Cohen to their ranks.

If Cohen was looking for attention, he got it. He's been hailed as a hero and condemned as a traitor. And the phone has been ringing off the hook.

But he's genuinely passionate about the Sons' right to have the flag on their license plates, regardless of what anyone thinks it says about him.

"The state of Maryland," Cohen says, "is going to lose the case and end up with egg on its face." Those who disagree, he says, are clueless about the history of the flag and the organization he has embraced.

Once you've gotten past Cohen's voice mail and snagged an actual interview, you'll find him comfortably ensconced in a big chair in his small Silver Spring apartment on the second floor of an old house. The living room is furnished in sort of a bare bachelor style. Plain blue slipcovered couch, chair, large plant in the corner, windowsill serving as the only cocktail table. There's an impressive music collection and two huge, lounging cats.

He's a 33-year-old history buff who knows exactly where he stands on issues and is not about to back down to fit anyone's definition of political correctness.

"There is nobody, white or black in America, who can tell me who I am," says Cohen, a thin man whose eyes flash behind his glasses. "I am a black person. I know who I am."

A lesson in Scotland

Tony Cohen was born the only son among two sisters in a professional family. His father is a retired entomologist; his mother is a teacher. He was born in Washington, but his family soon moved to solidly middle class Montgomery County, where Cohen graduated from Rockville High School.

After high school, Cohen worked a wide variety of jobs and traveled for 10 years. He wound up in Scotland, where he lived and worked as a record importer for about five years.

It was there that Cohen found himself confronting the Confederate flag in an entirely new context. It was the late 1980s, and the Scots were in an uproar over a proposed new poll tax the British wanted to levy. Protest was thick in the air. And it was symbolized by something unexpected: the Confederate flag.

"In Scotland that Confederate flag was in windows and doors. It was everywhere," says Cohen. "It's interesting. Scotland had adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of revolt." Europeans, he believes, have a lot more balanced perspective on the flag than many Americans.

The experience left its mark on Cohen. "It gave me a different angle on life and this world," he says.

When he returned home, Cohen decided to attend American University, where he received his bachelor's degree in history with a concentration in the history of slavery.

He was particularly interested in the Underground Railroad. Before he plunged into the flag dispute, Cohen had made something of a name for himself about six months ago by walking a route of the Underground Railroad from Sandy Spring in Montgomery County to Canada.

His journey was tracked by thousands on the Internet, and Oprah Winfrey even called and had him on her show. Cohen, who earns his living as an independent historian and lecturer, is now writing a book about the Underground Railroad.

It was inevitable that as he learned more about the Underground Railroad, his interest in researching his own family ancestry grew. What he found were ancestors both black and white who had fought on both sides in the Civil War. "I was surprised about the variety in my background," he says.

Earl encounter

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