DANVILLE, Va. – A local museum’s request to remove a Confederate flag was rejected by the City Council on Thursday, November 7 in a poor, struggling former textile town.
The Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History made the request to remove a monument where a Confederate flag flies. The Danville City Council voted down the request after the city’s attorney said state law prevents tampering with a historical monument.
That’s bad news to people like Carolyn La Viscount and Raymond Robertson who wanted the flag removed.
Flying a Confederate flag on public property in the 21st century is offensive to many African Americans, La Viscount said. La Viscount, a community activist who besides other work helps felons get their voting rights restored, said fear kept more African Americans from speaking out.
The flag is flown in Danville because the city gets a measure of notice claiming to be the Last Capital of the Confederacy. The Confederate government was together for the last time in Danville in April 1865 before Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant in Appomattox.
“When I look at the Confederate flag, what I feel is what I can imagine Jews feeling when they see a swastika,” La Viscount said. “The Confederate flag evokes memories of burning crosses, bombed churches and men hanging from trees.”
The fear is rooted in the race riots that occurred during a local election in 1883. African Americans were making political gains in Danville after the Civil War due to Reconstruction.
Whites were fearful that these gains would continue. A political meeting held before the election on November 3 of that year resulted in seven black men shot dead. Whites patrolled the city streets with shotguns that stifled black voter turnout for decades.
Raymond Robertson is a disabled Vietnam War-era veteran who takes care of a historic family cemetery near the Danville city limits. Robertson found KKK literature in his mailbox as the controversy began to boil.
The flag must come down if this city of 43,000 that rides the North Carolina border expects to move forward. “Our citizens do not have to be subjugated to symbols flying on government property that are linked to acts of terrorism by certain hate groups,” said the Rev. Avon Keen, president of the local SCLC.
Neo-Confederates in the community, wrapping the Confederate flag in the mantle of protecting their heritage, have told African Americans to go back to Africa if they don’t like what they see. Ed Clark, a lieutenant commander of a nearby Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, told that to an African American man this week. Clark made no apology for his statement and didn’t care if anyone took offense.
Flag fanatics at the City Council meeting were almost expecting that their flag would be shelved. Older whites spoke of the need to understand that the flag represents diversity.
That all changed when the city’s attorney, W. Clarke Whitfield, issued an opinion saying Council had no authority to remove the flag. Attitudes changed immediately. Calls for acceptance of different views and honoring the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers turned to hostile defiance.
Flag supporters even blamed Democrats for the controversy, saying the announcement was made roughly two months before Election Day: This was an attempt to get more African Americans to the polls.
What certain white supporters of the flag refuse to admit is that the building where the flag is located became a local temple of segregation in the city. The flag flies in front of the Sutherlin Mansion. This building has a disgraceful history that some whites pretend they want to forget. It served as Danville’s segregated public library. Efforts by Black World War II veterans to integrate the library caused city officials to close it rather than allow black citizens entry.
City officials removed all the chairs in the building when a federal judge ordered that the library had to integrate. The Confederate flag flew for years until the museum’s board decided to take it down in 1993.
Caravans of trucks waving Confederate flags rode through Danville’s main streets to get attention. Some of these teams harassed African Americans by riding through their neighborhoods honking horns and yelling at people.
Rev. Keen said it is too soon to say what the flag opponents will do, but the fight isn’t over.
Photo: The abandoned textile mill in Danville, Va. – once the source of many jobs for workers. Wikipedia (CC)