Confederate Flag Flap in Harrisburg

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The Hanover Area Historical Society has a collection of replica flags it loaned to the Pennsylvania State Capitol for display in honor of Flag Day. Three of these fifty flags are confederate flags: A First National Flag, a Bonny Blue Flag, and an Army of Tennessee battle flag. State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown (D-Philadelphia) took umbrage at seeing the battle flag and removed it herself, dropping it off at the office of state House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny), who turned it over to capitol police. Capitol police returned the flag to the display, but Gov. Tom Wolf (D) ordered it removed. Since the state Department of General Services, which administers the Capitol building, falls under Gov. Wolf’s authority, he has the power to do so. State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) complained about the other two flags, and Gov. Wolf had them removed as well. “The Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and hatred and he doesn’t think it should be displayed in a state building,” according to the Governor’s spokesperson, Jeff Sheridan. In explaining her actions, Rep. Brown said, “That Confederate flag is a symbol of hate, murder and oppression.” See stories here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Is this a case of “political correctness” run amok? Is it a case of “censoring history” or trying to “sugarcoat history?”

One has to ask, first, what was the display about, and was the inclusion of the flags appropriate?

The display is from the Wilfred C. Clausen collection of 78 replica historical flags. According to the historical society, “The collection of handmade replica flags spans the age of early exploration – starting with a flag believed to have flown on Viking quadroons – through colonization and expansion to the present day.” But not quite to the present day. The collection hasn’t been updated since the 1972 death of Mr. Clausen, so historical flags, such as the rainbow flag, aren’t included.

An early news story said the theme of the display was “different eras of exploration, colonization, expansion, and territory.” That makes me wonder, what the heck was any confederate flag doing as part of the display to begin with? What did it have to do with the exploration and colonization of the New World? What does it have to do with expansion of the United States across the continent and US territories? “When asked about whether the flag belonged as part of a historical display, Sheridan said, ‘Pennsylvania wasn’t part of the Confederacy, so I’m not sure why that would be a symbol of a historical display in our building here in the Capitol.’ ‘It should never have been in here in the first place,’ he added.”

Debra Markle of the historical society curated the display. “The flags, she said, were chosen and displayed in chronological order to reflect the expansion of the United States.” But that doesn’t explain the confederate flags. The confederacy wasn’t a reaction against expansion of the United States. The Civil War wasn’t about whether or not the United States would expand. It had to do with the expansion of slavery.

Another version of the display’s purpose is these are “flags that have flown over what is now the U.S., including from territories and the colonial period.” It might cover the First National Flag, but it doesn’t explain the battle flag or the Bonnie Blue Flag. They were carried by armies and didn’t “fly over” what is now the United States.

The most current version of the display’s purpose is it’s a “display of 50 flags from different chapters of North American history.” That makes some sense, but again we ask why the Army of Tennessee’s battle flag made the cut. We also can ask why the Bonnie Blue Flag made the cut. They are historical flags, but what other battle flags are included in the collection?

So it’s iffy as to whether or not the flag even belonged in the display to start with. If we’re going to say this is “political correctness” run amok, we’re going to have to show the flag was being displayed in proper historical context. So far that’s in question.

Rep. Brown says her basic complaint is the battle flag was displayed without the proper context. She said “the placard underneath it did not ‘properly say that this was a symbol of hatred, murder and oppression.’ ” She says she’s not opposed to the display of the flag as long as it’s displayed in the proper context. “Brown, who chairs the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said she’s not necessarily opposed to the display of the Confederate flag as part of a historical display. The problem with the historical society’s display, she said, was that the adjoining plaque didn’t provide the history of bloodshed and racism that the flag represents. ‘That flag can come back up, but it has to tell the truth,’ she said.”

The plaques were removed from the places that contained the flags, so we can’t check to see what they said. So still, the historical context of the display is in doubt.

What about the claim that this is just history, and that the display should remain intact because it’s history?

“Markle, reached by phone after the flag’s removal, said she couldn’t recall what was on the plaque but reiterated that the Civil War-era flags are part of America’s shared history. ‘It’s very disheartening,’ she said of Wolf’s order to take down the flag. ‘They’re caving in to bullies, period.’ ” According to Rep. Harris, “Those things cannot happen. If there needs to be more education so that people understand what these symbols mean, then that’s something that we need to do, but these kinds of things can’t happen. This is the state Capitol. This is the people’s Capitol.”

“The flag is still a powerful symbol of America’s long history of slavery and the racism that persists today, Harris said. Even in a historical display, he said, it has no place in the Capitol. ‘Sure, it’s a difficult part of our history, but it’s a part of the history that had my ancestors in chains,’ he said. ‘No other part of anyone’s history that includes slavery . . . would be acceptable to still display. It is a part of our history,’ he added, ‘but it’s a part of our history we shouldn’t be celebrating by hanging those flags in this Capitol.’ ”

Here’s how the local CBS affiliate covered the story:

The ABC affiliate’s stories at 6PM and 11PM were slightly different, and I thought you should see both versions:

6PM:

11PM:

Bottom line, I can see a protest against removal of the First National Flag being valid if we take the last two versions of the display’s purpose as being what it was about, but if we’re to claim the removal of the other two flags is “political correctness,” we have to also take into account that the display was flawed because those two flags shouldn’t have been included. If there’s a political purpose behind removing them, we have to acknowledge the strong possibility of a political purpose behind including them. They had nothing to do with any of the various expressed purposes of the display. Since 50 of the 78 flags in the collection were used, it’s not unreasonable to think the battle flag and the Bonnie Blue Flag could have easily been left out without adversely affecting the purpose of the display.

Consider also that Flag Day, which the display purportedly honored, is a patriotic US day of commemoration. There’s nothing patriotic to the US about any confederate flag.

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11 comments

  1. bob carey · · Reply

    Al,
    President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation establishing Flag Day describes the Country as “one and inseparable” so any display of Confederate flags would seem inappropriate, and as you say that if the display was to recognize any flag which flew over the region which eventually became the United States the Confederate display would be also inappropriate,because it was always part of the country before secession.
    Rep. Brown appears to be a bit feisty, I love it.

    1. Thanks, Bob.

      The jury’s still out on the question because we don’t really know the context, since we can’t see the plaque that was removed to see how it was presented. From what I’ve seen so far, there wasn’t any context, but we don’t know for sure.

      1. bob carey · · Reply

        Al,
        I can see your point, the news reports are vague as to the reason for the display.
        I find it ironic that Wilson would use the phrase “one and inseparable” considering his southern upbringing and his “Lost Cause” views.

        1. His formative years were during the reunion period, so the “one and inseparable” would be understandable. It looks like the local news channels aren’t following up on the story to get more information.

  2. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    Today marks a year since the Charleston church shootings, and with June destined to be forever laden with commemorations of those lost to hate, I felt it proper to give this issue of CBF display some thought.

    A lot has happened over the last year: voices raised in opposition to the CBF on public property have been heard, and the results are in place. The oppressed — citizens in our midst — have waited a lifetime for these days to arrive, and sadly, some did not live to see it, as their deaths may very well have ignited the changes that they hoped for. I view this recent incident in Harrisburg as a mere indication that we are in the infancy of CBF display etiquette/management, and there is sure to be more growing pains on the horizon. I am not concerned. The important message in all of this is that people are finally realizing that there is something wrong – something inherently offensive about the CBF – and whilst they may be undecided as to how to rectify this wrong, the fact that they are seeking solutions speaks volumes. It will probably not be in my lifetime, but I dream of the day that the only place one can see a CBF is locked behind a glass display in a museum.

    1. Well said, Shoshana. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Tunick · · Reply

    Seems like it is just something some historically illiterate people are doing to [edit]. Slavery was just the flash point at the start of the Civil War, it started 50 years earlier with an Import Tariff in an effort to make an agricultural South buy the tools from an industrial North. In 1832, when it was increased to almost 100%, South Carolina was ready to secede at that time, and probably would have if Andrew Jackson didn’t back down. Skipping to 1857 when there was a recession being that the Government’s only income was tariffs and selling land (and the land bubble busted) Lincoln’s campaign was built on raising tariffs and making us isolationists. South Carolina swore that they would secede from the union and when he got elected, they did.

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [subtitle edited in: Maryland]

    The battle flag of Northern Virginia, the middle star stands for Maryland, who was going to secede, but Lincoln had the legislator and the Governor of Maryland put in prison so that they could not vote to secede.

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [subtitle edited in: Civil Liberties]

    He also locked up 1,300 reporters who spoke out against him, one being the grandson of Francis Scott Key. Talk about biased media like this article.

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [subtitle edited in: Beginning of Slavery in the US]

    Slaves came first as indentured servants, but later a court case involving a man named Anthony Johnson made slavery legal in the 13 colonies. He was a black man. Slavery in Africa was started by the African people. The first slaves were presented to a ship’s captain by a chieftain that had captured them from a warring village. They were presented to the Pope and he decided they would make good servants to the white man, because they were such good servants to him. To begin with, the blacks sold their war captives to the white ship captains and when the first whites tried to capture slaves themselves, to keep from paying the chieftains for them, they found that they were not as tough as the black warriors and were not immune to the diseases of the black man. Hundreds of them died trying to capture slave in Africa. Of all the slaves brought to the Americas only 5% came to North America. The rest were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean Islands to work the sugar plantations.

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [Subtitle edited in: Treatment of Slaves]

    Slaves in America were treated as slaves and the worst treatment came after the invention of the cotton gin, but unless you can trace your genealogy from before the Civil War it may have been your ancestors doing the mistreating.

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [Subtitle edited in: Black Slave Owners]

    Because at the time of the Civil War the census showed over 250,000 free blacks in the South, and 10% owned slaves. The largest plantation at the start of the war had over 200 slaves and it was owned by a black man.

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [Subtitle edited in: Lincoln and Slavery]

    Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, said that he would make slavery a legal institution forever if the south did not secede.

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [Subtitle edited in: Confederate Flag]

    This flag has been hijacked, but every hate group has a swastika, and you can change my mind right now if you can show me a single confederate soldier or officer in the Civil War era with a swastika (another example of a symbol being subverted). The silent majority of the South knows this flag as heritage, and if you go to a true poll that’s been done, the majority of Americans see it as “Heritage not Hate” the hate comes from the ones who don’t understand history, because they were taught after the Johnson administration worked to changed history to justify the Civil Rights movement and the social programs.

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [Subtitle edited in: Shelby Foote’s Opinion]

    One historian, Shelby Foote, who was born in New Orleans said that “Neither side gave a [edit] about slavery”

    [Paragraph break edited in]
    [Subtitle edited in: Should Statues and Monuments Be Removed?]

    The statues and monuments of the Civil War should not be taken down because they are not “symbols of racism”.

    1. I took your mishmash of barely related gibberish, most of which has no bearing on the topic, and gave it some organization for you. It’s funny that people who are most historically illiterate often call others who understand history much better than they do “historically illiterate.”

      Tariffs were not a reason for secession. Anyone who thinks so either just doesn’t know their history or they are flat out lying. Your creative attempt to trace tariff history has little relation to reality. The 1828 tariff was nowhere near 100%. That’s just an idiotic claim that shows you have no idea what you’re talking about. Lincoln’s campaign wasn’t built on high tariffs. He did favor increasing the tariff, but didn’t center his campaign on it. South Carolina did threaten to secede if he was elected, but not because of tariffs. It was because of his stand on slavery–specifically the fact that he thought slavery was wrong and should be prevented from expanding. See here for a discussion of the Morrill Tariff. See here for a discussion of why South Carolina seceded. Oh, and you have no clue what “isolationist” means.

      Your ahistorical claim about Maryland also shows you have no clue about what really happened. Maryland was not going to secede. Maryland’s legislature had voted against secession and were going to meet in Frederick, a Unionist area. There was a rumor that there was a plot for some secessionist legislators to cooperate with confederate soldiers in a coup to bring Maryland into the confederacy. McClellan ordered the arrests, and it wasn’t the entire legislature. The Governor of Maryland was not arrested. You can see a discussion of Maryland and the treatment of the press, as well as other civil liberties charges against Lincoln, here.

      Your inaccurate claims about Anthony Johnson and the beginning of slavery show you don’t know your history. I deal with the myth of Anthony Johnson being the first slave owner here. Your claim about the Pope appears to be nothing more than anti-Catholic bigotry.

      Your claim about “the worse treatment” coming “after the invention of the cotton gin” is of doubtful accuracy. As far as “black slave owners” goes, most of the so-called “black slave owners” actually owned their family members. Manumission laws at the time mandated that any slave who was freed would have to leave the state, so if they wanted to free their family members they’d have to move away from their homes. To complicate this a little more, in many instances slaves would be allowed to board with free black families, so when the census came about there would be a slave in the household of the free black person, but the owner was some white man living elsewhere. According to Leonard Curry in The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850, the census marshals didn’t differentiate between slave owning blacks and slave boarding blacks. If that’s the case, the number of black slaveowners is actually less than the census would indicate. “The majority of Negro owners of slaves had some personal interest in their property. Frequently the husband purchased his wife or vice versa; or the slaves were the children of a free father who had purchased his wife; or they were other relatives or friends who had been rescued from the worst features of the institution by some affluent free Negro.” [John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, p. 224] “Economic success in the South depended largely on the ownership of slaves, and free Negroes were no more exempt from this than whites. Although most free negro slaveholders were truly benevolent despots, owning only their families and friends to prevent their enslavement or forcible deportation, a small minority of wealthy freemen exploited slaves for commercial purposes. This small group of free Negroes were generally the wealthiest and best-connected members of their caste.” [Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, p. 273] Also, it’s problematic to consider them to be “black slave owners,” since many of those slave owners who used slavery for exploitation considered themselves to be more white than black. “Many wealthy freemen, like [Andrew] Durnford [who owned a Louisiana plantation with 75 slaves], considered themselves more white than black, no matter what their precise racial heritage.” [Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, pp. 274-275] Let’s take the case of William Ellison. “A brown-skinned man who would be called black today, Ellison did not consider himself a black man but a man of color, a mulatto, a man neither black nor white, a brown man.” [Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South, p. xi] Those so-called “black slaveowners” who owned slaves for profit instead of owning family members were almost all mixed race sons of white slaveowners who were given economic position by their fathers. The majority of them were in Louisiana. They considered themselves to be white, not black. So why should we consider them to be black? Your claim about the largest slave owner is equally bogus. Wade Hampton owned 3,000 slaves, and the largest slave owner in the South was Samuel Hairston, a white judge.

      Your comment about Lincoln and the Corwin Amendment shows you have no idea what Lincoln’s position was and what the Corwin Amendment did. I discuss the Corwin Amendment here.

      Your comments about the confederate flag show you know nothing about its history. You should read this book.

      Your claim about Shelby Foote is false.

      Thank you for your opinion about the statues and monuments, but you are wrong about their symbology. They are symbols of racism because the confederacy was dedicated to the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy.

      1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

        I know that this is a counter-intuitive statement, but I can almost come to appreciate nonsense if it brings forth such quality replies as this one. I thank you Mr. Mackey for taking the time to provide an informative, educational response to that post above. I suppose that darn near anything can be turned into a teaching moment….and remember: I said almost.

        1. Almost is exactly right.

      2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

        Nice response to the historically incorrect individual, Al. Amazing what facts show us. You would think those who consider themselves to be Confederates would share their time machine with the rest of the world. I say that because there are no living Confederates. They died of old age a long time ago. Those who want to identify as Confederates fail in their historical knowledge.

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