Protesters want Confederate flag to fly over Virginia museums

By: Kristen Green
March 24, 2012

Twice a week, about a dozen people stand alongside Richmond’s Boulevard to protest the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ removal of a Confederate flag from the Confederate Memorial Chapel on the museum grounds.

Now the group, Virginia Flaggers, is taking on the Museum of the Confederacy, which is opening a museum in Appomattox next week. The group plans to protest the branch’s opening because, despite its request, a Confederate flag will not fly in front of the museum.

"It’s a symbol of my ancestors and what they fought for and what they gave their lives for in a lot of cases," said founder Susan Hathaway, of Sandston. "We feel like it’s dishonoring them to put some kind of shame on the flag and make it something that has to be hidden."

The Confederate flag is a polarizing image that, to many people, especially African-Americans, symbolizes racism and oppression. Hathaway acknowledges some people feel that way, but said it’s because groups like the Ku Klux Klan co-opted the flag’s image. "I’m not ignorant," she said. "I’m not saying everyone loves the flags."

S. Waite Rawls III, president and CEO of the museum, said the group has not responded to his offer to see the plans for the Appomattox museum. He said 22 Confederate flags are on exhibit inside the museum. A banner outside discusses the history of the Confederate flag and includes photographs of three of the flags displayed inside the museum. A display of 15 flags on flagpoles — 14 state flags displayed in the order they left the union, along with an American flag — will also grace the building’s exterior.

"Appomattox is a metaphor for the reunification of the country," Rawls said. "To put the Confederate flag into that display would be a historical untruth."

The Museum of Confederacy-Richmond is working to attract a wider audience, in part, by including more diverse stories of Southerners’ roles in the Civil War, including those of African-Americans and women. By opening an Appomattox site, the museum is also taking its enormous collection of artifacts directly to Civil War tourists.

Grayson Jennings, a "Flagger" who lives in Mechanicsville, is angry that a Confederate flag won’t be hung in front of a museum that celebrates the Confederacy. "It’s political correctness is all it is," Jennings said.

Rawls said the decision has been made. "They have a different approach to educating the public than we do," he said. "We have 122 years of experience in doing it. They don’t."

Hathaway began protesting the VMFA in October after asking the museum to return two Confederate battle flags that had been removed from the chapel. She estimates about 160 protestors have been involved, coming from as far as Georgia and Texas.

The state’s Department of General Services began managing the chapel in 1941, when the last former Confederate soldier died. It was deeded to the VMFA in 1993. The Sons of Confederate Veterans began leasing the chapel that year and added two Confederate battle flags, said Stephen Bonadies, a VMFA deputy director.

In preparation for the Civil War Sesquicentennial, the VMFA conducted extensive research on the chapel and determined that a flag did not historically hang out front, Bonadies said. When the lease was renegotiated with the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2010, the museum asked that the flags be taken down. "We thought that was an appropriate step to take at that point," Bonadies said.

The Flaggers’ request to fly Confederate flags is not under consideration, he said.

"We take very seriously our responsibility to understand and interpret the history of our site," Bonadies said. "Our decision is based upon that research."

Hathaway says the VMFA protest gives members of her group an opportunity to interact with passersby and explain what they are seeking. "We’ve had a lot of changed hearts and minds," she said.

©2012 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC

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