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Confederate 'stars and bars' remains honored in Brazil where southerns migrated after war

As the battle rages over the future visibility role, if any, for the flag of the confederacy, one place the stars and bars will remain honored and celebrated is in Brazil, where Confederates created colonies after the Civil War at the invitation of the Brazilian emperor and proceeded to make a lasting mark on that nation's culture. 

That little-known Civil War chapter is the subject of a book by one of my closest friends, Gary Neeleman, that is to be published in Brazil in Portuguese before year end and negotiations are proceeding to have it published soon thereafter in English in the United States. 

When published in English, the book could be a timely addition to the current discussion, including both the legitimate effort to minimize future display of the Confederate battle flag and the less logical disparagement of Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee and anything relating to the citizens of the Confederacy. 

Neeleman's Gary and Rose Neeleman research over the past 40 years through aged documents, old letters and newspaper clips brings him to conclude that history not racial hatred, pride not prejudice, were the driving force for those who migrated to Brazil rather than again become part of the United States.

My friendship with Neeleman, 81, extends back more than 40 years, beginning with our more than a decade as executives at United Press International. And I've been struck by his perpetual zeal to evangelize "the spiritual link between the United States and Brazil." While a focus of this column is on Neeleman's book on the Confederate migration, because of its timeliness, the column is really more about the journalist who built a lifelong love affair with Brazil and its people and has left his imprint on the nation, where his contributions will be honored in a few weeks in San Paulo. 

But to first finish the story of the Confederates, obviously, no slaves accompanied the some 7,000 "Confederado" families in the 1866 migration, in which they were personally greeted by Emperor Dom Pedro II upon their arrival in their new home. But interestingly, the southerners avoided acquiring slaves in Brazil, a country where slaves were more common at that time than in virtually any country in the world. 

Neeleman notes that when leaders of the more than 20,000 southerners who founded two communities in Brazil were asked about the fact they didn't have slaves, they replied that they no longer wanted to own people but preferred to employ them "so we can fire them if they don't do their job." 

The southerners, many of them from the most important and prominent families in the southern part of the United States, established the cities of Americana and Santa Barbara do Este. And, as Neeleman notes, for 150 years the descendants of those Confederate communities have gathered annually to celebrate their heritage at the Cemetario de Campo, the old cemetery where about 2,000 Confederate soldiers and their families have been buried. And the Stars and Bars that were the Confederate Battle Flag were and have remained highly visible there, some Confederates actually being buried wrapped in the flag. 

He recalls the year he was asked to help arrange for former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, as well as aide Jody Powell to attend the Confederate picnic at the cemetery and how "they sat at the cemetery, sang Dixie and all three had tears streaming down their faces." 

"That portion of American history and the stories of the 'Confederadoes' are lost in a linguistic tomb because Portuguese is a barrier to entry for those seeking to explore history," explains Neeleman. who hopes those stories in English will bring a closer look in this country at that history. 

Neeleman routinely refers to "the two giants of the Western Hemisphere" and his research on Brazil and its people has actually resulted in not just a book on the Confederate but also two other books that emphasize the ties between the two nations. One already published, "Tracks in the Amazon," details the construction of a railroad through the jungle, at a cost of thousands of lives, to bring goods from Bolivia, down the Amazon to the coast. The other book tells the also little-known story of how Brazilian rubber saved the allied war effort in World War II after Japanese victories in the South Pacific captured the Indonesian rubber fields that represented about 98 percent of the world's rubber production at that time. Restoring brazilian rubber production was vital to the Allied success. 

It was in the early '60s that UPI plucked Neeleman, as a young reporter from Salt Lake City, and sent him to Brazil, where he had learned Portuguese as a young Mormon missionary. His regard for Brazil and Brazilians developed quickly and three of his seven children were born there, including David, whose launch of Azul as his third airline, following Morris Air and Jet Blue, has resulted in the fastest-growing carrier in Brazil. During the 1963 Pan American Games in San Paulo, Neeleman recalled being struck by the conduct of U.S. athletes who played what he described as "the Ugly Americans," overwhelmingly defeating their South American opponents and treating them with disdain following the competition.

"I made up my mind right there that I would someday do something about that attitude," Neeleman told me. And so he did when, after returning to Salt lake City, he called upon the close-knit Utah coaches to help him put together a college basketball post-season tour of South America. 

That tour, with Neeleman acting as scheduler, accommodations arranger and bag-boy, became an NCAA post-season fixture and Neeleman became a regular luncheon speaker each year at the NCAA tournament. 

Gary and Rose travel to Brazil about three times a year and when they're not traveling on personal or client business, or traveling to the Brazilian back country as part of their research for his books, he's doing Brazil's business as honorary counsel in Salt Lake City. 

One of those trips was last September when he received an unusual honor as the fourth recipient of an award whose English translation is Citizen of San Paulo. Others who preceded him as recipients of the honor named for the State of San Paulo were the Pope, the Dalai Lama and the founder of the Mormon Church in Brazil. Add Neeleman to the list.

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