Virginians clash in heated dispute over Confederate flag flying atop public monument
The Third Flag of the Confederacy flies outside the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History in southern Virginia, just north of the North Carolina border. In a September 30 letter, museum director Cara Burton asked the Danville City Council to move the lesser-known Confederate flag ‒ different than the battle flag known as the ‘Stars and Bars’ ‒ inside the building to be part of an exhibit on Confederate flags as part of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the Danville Register and Bee reported.
The request kicked off a furor over the meaning of the banner, Southern heritage and civil rights.
In a letter of its own, the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an African-American civil rights organization, backed Burton’s request to move the flag inside the museum “for educational purposes.”
“The SCLC would like to help educated [sic] the community the true history of the confederate Ideology by all groups coming together to bring a united understanding of the symbolism of the confederate flag today,” the group wrote. “We cannot ignore the Corner Stone speech and fly the confederate flag. The confederate flag has become a symbol of hate in the world today.”
The Cornerstone Speech was delivered by Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander H. Stephens after he was elected to the position at the outset of the Civil War on March 21, 1861. In the address, Stephens announced that the new government was founded on the idea that blacks were inferior to whites.
Danville has owned the home of the museum ‒ the Sutherlin Mansion ‒ since 1914, when it took over the dilapidated building with a contribution from the Anne Eliza Johns Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The museum leased the space in 1983, and in 1994 the Historic Preservation Association installed a seven-foot granite obelisk and flagpole flying the third national flag of the Confederacy to celebrate the building’s Civil War history.
The monument and its flag were codified into state law.
“[U]nder Virginia law, the city does not have the legal authority to remove the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History,” City Manager Joe King said in a statement in mid-October.
“We were hoping the city would have adhered to the request by the museum,” Rev. Avon Keen, president of the Danville/Pittsylvania County chapter of the SCLC, said during a news conference held Monday morning in front of the museum.
“The Confederate flag has been used by many in acts of hate in the process of hate crimes,” he added. “The Confederate flag is not the voice of all [of] Danville, Virginia’s citizens. Some citizens are more concerned about the federal laws that protect rights to equality to all citizens than a questionable interpretation of a state law being used to make states’ rights statements.”
But some Danville residents applauded the city council’s decision not to remove the flag, saying that it pays homage to their Southern heritage.
"I am extremely happy. It should have never happened," Vernell Gwynn, the local president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said to WDBJ.
During the Monday press conference, a heated exchange took place over the use of the flag at the press conference.
"It doesn't mean you have the right to take people," a man yelled, in reference to people who kidnapped blacks and used them as slaves, according to WSET.
"Then you need to go back to Africa!" Ed Clark, Second Lieutenant Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, yelled back, saying that the man should ask his ancestors why they sold "his people" into slavery.
"But I'm confronting you, you're involved in the crime too," the man replied.
"It's the right thing to do, to keep it up. It's a piece of history. A lot of things offend me and I don't sit there and say you need to stop that and take it down and be done with it," said Clark said.
"To me, it's an attack on America," Clark told WDBJ.
Others saw both sides of the issue, and believed that displaying the Third Flag of the Confederacy in the museum is a compromise.
"You should not get rid of the Confederate ‒ flag it should be inside the museum. Yes, it is a part of history. A history we should all have learned from," Petrina Carter, a Danville resident, told WDBJ.