It should come as no surprise that the two stories involving high school students waving and posing next to Confederate flags have become national news. It’s also painfully clear that the parties involved have no historical understanding of how to think through some of the important issues involved, namely the history. Last night the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board met to discuss the Instagram photo of two female students waving Confederate flags on the Gettysburg battlefield. A sizable crowd turned out to share their thoughts.
I am much more interested in the Chapel Hill situation precisely because it involves a school trip to Gettysburg. One comment that continues to surface, especially from those defending the girls, is that the photograph was taken out of context. What I take this to mean is that the girls did not intend to offend anyone in their school group or anyone who happened to see it online. It is unclear as to how the students came into possession of the flags, but regardless we can assume that the organizers of the event did not intend to offend anyone by sanctioning it. The father of one of the girls has repeatedly stated that the photograph was taken out of context.
But what exactly does this mean? How can this photograph be taken out of context on a trip to our most prominent Civil War battlefield? The only context that matters is the relevant history. Unless the organizers of this event can explain why these flags were being waved then parents and others have every right to be offended. There is no evidence that the flags were being used as part of a reenactment.
What the organizers of this trip and students failed to understand is that waving the Confederate flag, especially on a battlefield, has attached to it a very long and painful history. The relevant historical context for this flag is its connection to an army whose sole mission was to bring about the independence of a slave-holding nation. Regardless of their individual motivations, that is what North Carolinians and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia was doing at Gettysburg in July 1863. The relevant historical context for this flag is its appropriation by white Americans as a symbol of resistance against the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. It’s entire history is wrapped up in the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy.
What is sad is that the students and adults did not appear to understand this before departing to Gettysburg or at the conclusion of the trip. A school visit to Gettysburg isn’t the place to introduce this broad narrative, it’s where you solidify it.
The only question that matters now is whether East Chapel Hill High School will take the necessary steps to educate their students. If anything, we have all been given a reminder of why history education is indispensable.