Hopkins balks at Confederate banner

Changing course after 20 years, university tells groups it won’t rent them space for Jan. march

By Stephen Kiehl
November 20, 2008

Every January, descendants of Confederate soldiers gather in Wyman Park to march under the banner of the Confederacy, sing "Dixie" and lay wreaths at the monument to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, legendary generals of the Confederate States of America.

And afterward, for 20 years now, everyone has gone across the street to the Johns Hopkins University for coffee and refreshments, with some of the 200 descendants and observers still wearing the uniforms of Confederate re-enactors and carrying the flag. But next year will be different.

Hopkins has informed the Maryland divisions of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans that it will not rent space to them. The Jan. 17 event is scheduled for only a few days before the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president. The university received complaints after the march last January and says that it no longer wants to see the Confederate flag flying on campus.

"We’re not legally required to rent rooms to anybody who asks, and in this case we have chosen not to rent a room," said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O’Shea. "We choose not to have the Confederate battle flag carried across our campus, particularly at that time of year, so very close to the Martin Luther King holiday."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in its position statement on the Confederate flag, calls it a "wretched symbol of hate" and a "sign of disrespect to all those who cherish freedom."

The university is sensitive to racial issues. Two years ago, a student posted an invitation to a fraternity Halloween party on Facebook, dubbing it "Halloween in the Hood" and encouraging those who attended to wear "regional clothing from our locale" such as "bling bling ice ice, grills" and "hoochie hoops." The student was suspended.

Members of the Confederate groups say they are victims of political correctness run amok. They say they seek only to honor their ancestors and that they have caused no problems in the previous two decades they have used Hopkins facilities. At first, they said, Hopkins gave them space for free. But then prices went up. The groups paid $375 to rent space in Shriver Hall last January.

"We’re being singled out for being the descendants of Confederate soldiers," said G. Elliott Cummings, 69, adjutant of the Col. Harry W. Gilmor Camp of the Sons of Confederate veterans. "It’s our purpose to remember them and honor their service. … We’re proud of our ancestors. We have no political agenda whatsoever."

The ceremony will go on. The groups get city permits to gather in the public park next to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where the monument of Jackson and Lee astride horses was dedicated in 1948. The seven-ton, 14-foot-high statue depicts the two generals at their last meeting, in 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va. Shortly after, Jackson was accidentally shot and killed by his own men.

In previous years, the ceremony has featured music from the Civil War period, a Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, a salute to the Confederate flag, and a march from the southern end of the Hopkins campus down Wyman Park Drive to the monument. The march will be shortened this January so the groups do not step on Hopkins property.

"I can assure you there will be a celebration of General Lee’s and General Jackson’s birthday," said Cummings, who counts 20 ancestors, including his great-great-grandfather, as Confederate soldiers. Lee was born Jan. 19, 1807, and Jackson on Jan. 21, 1824.

Cummings, of Towson, said the lack of a reception site will surely depress turnout because it means there will be no bathroom facilities, a particular problem because many of the participants are older.

"I can’t encourage people to come if they’re going to be uncomfortable," Cummings said. But he remained defiant. "They’re not going to deter us from having it. Maybe that was their intention, but that’s not going to happen."

Hopkins officials said they have no control or desire to control what happens on public property.

News of the refusal was first reported on the Web site Inside Higher Ed this week, after appearing on several blogs of Confederate groups and Southern writers last week. The blogs have urged readers to contact Hopkins President William R. Brody. A Hopkins spokesman said Brody has received "some" communications but declined to characterize their nature.

Sons of Confederate Veterans released a letter from Brody’s executive assistant, sent after the group asked the university to reconsider its stance. "We have considered our decision and do not wish to change it," said the letter from Brody assistant Jerome D. Schnydman, dated Oct. 14.

The Confederate groups say they have been misunderstood, and that the flag to them represents their ancestors who fought in what they call the War Between the States and the Revolutionary War. "You have a situation where we’ve let other people define us, and in the past haven’t spoken out as strongly as we should about other groups who have usurped the use of our flag," said Michael K. Williams, commander of the Gilmor Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

He acknowledged that Hopkins is a private institution, but he said that because it receives federal money it must adhere to federal nondiscriminatory policies when it comes to renting space on campus. Williams said his group is a federally registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said his association supports freedom of speech but that he did not have enough information to wade into the debate over whether Hopkins was denying the First Amendment rights of the Confederate groups. But he said the Confederate flag was a "despicable" symbol that stood then and now for segregation.

Don Cash, an NAACP national board member from Columbia, applauded Hopkins’ decision and said, "What that flag means to me is slavery."

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

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