Northern High Schools Confront Their Confederate Past

Like many of you I have been following the growing number of public schools that have had to respond to students bringing Confederate flags onto school grounds. This is taking place throughout the country and not just in the South. I’ve read stories of schools as far north as New Hampshire and Minnesota that are currently dealing with this issue. Even more interesting are those Northern schools with deeper ties to Confederate heritage that go back to the 1960s. In my latest column at The Daily Beast I briefly explore two of those schools, one in Walpole, Massachusetts and the other in South Burlington, Vermont.

Admittedly, I don’t do more than scratch the surface. There is certainly a much longer and more interesting story to tell about these two communities, but I do believe that the continued embrace of the Lost Cause and reconciliation at the height of the Cold War and the absence of any local connection to the Civil War helped to make this possible.

The Daily Beast no longer allows for reader comments so feel free to leave your thoughts here.

I am very eager to help schools that are working through ways to navigate these tough questions. The best way to begin is to educate students about the history and memory of the flag. Click here for more information about how I can help.

[Banner image from a South Burlington yearbook]

23 comments… add one
  • Sandi Saunders Oct 24, 2015

    Clearly the many “adaptations” and “applied meanings” complicate the issue, but the underlying truth and documented fact will always argue against that flag in any setting outside of Civil War commemoration unless you just want to look racist, secessionist, and anti-US.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2015

      How we consume or negotiate our way through the past is rarely about “underlying truth.”

  • David Oct 24, 2015

    You may be correct about the “underlying truth” of this issue, but what Sandi says is still correct. Would these same young men and women feel as free to wear a kkk or a white supremacist shirt to school? I doubt it. They need to learn that the flag shirts are one and the same.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2015

      I have consistently maintained that the best place for the Confederate flag is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.

  • David Oct 24, 2015

    When you are with students, what do they think the cbf represents? If it is anything but what Sandi says, their education is sorely lacking.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2015

      The students that I work with across the country in classrooms and workshops across the country hold a wide range of views that reflect any number of factors.

  • David Oct 24, 2015

    It has been so long since I’ve seen a high school history book, as I’ve raised my 4 long ago, I’d be interested to see what children are taught today. My grandchildren are all moved away, so that option is gone too! I have to return some books to the library soon. While I’m there, I’ll see if they keep copies of middle and HS text books.

  • TF Smith Oct 24, 2015

    Just curious, but presumably both high schools were in existence before the “rebel” team names and iconography were adopted; what was replaced? Be an interesting sidelight on historical memory issues.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2015

      Walpole was known as the “Hilltoppers” and if I remember correctly South Burlington started in the early 1960s.

      • TFSmith Oct 24, 2015

        Hilltoppers – some sort of reference to where the school/town is located?

        In terms of organizational culture, one would expect there was some sort of process for naming schools and their teams in place at the District level … Might be interesting to determine what that was, and closely the process at each school followed it … These are not questions generally left to children, today or in the 1960s.

  • Meg Thompson Oct 24, 2015

    Kevin–a friend is blogging based on slave interviews from the WPA. His latest concerns a former slave narrative mentioning the Confederate army. The interview may be found at: http://www.thiscruelwar.com/2015/10/23/voices-of-slavery-james-martin-veteran-railroader-and-cowboy/

    I thought it might be of interest.

  • Sherree Oct 24, 2015

    Kevin,

    In your article you say: “The Confederate flag’s connection to resistance to civil rights did not prevent two schools in overwhelmingly white New England communities from embracing it…..”

    It would be my guess that the flag’s connection to resistance to civil rights was precisely why these two communities did embrace it. This is where the racist segments of Northern society meet those of Southern society. Still.

    The men and women of the 1960s and 1970s knew damn well what that flag meant. Boston was a mean place in those days–nearly as mean as Birmingham–as we all witnessed when the busing crisis erupted.

    I am enjoying your blog. Again. You certainly have made a significant and important place for yourself among Civil War scholars. Well deserved. Truly.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2015

      Hi Sherree,

      Nice to hear from you after all this time. Hope you are doing well.

      It would be my guess that the flag’s connection to resistance to civil rights was precisely why these two communities did embrace it. This is where the racist segments of Northern society meet those of Southern society. Still.

      I am certainly not going to deny that Northern racism was potent during this period, but it’s hard to understand what communities like Walpole and South Burlington were ‘resisting’ given that they were overwhelmingly white. Like I said in the piece, there is a more detailed story that needs to be told about why the flag was embraced by some schools at this time. Thanks again for the comment and the kind words.

      • Sherree Oct 24, 2015

        You’re welcome, Kevin. Keep up the good work!

        I see what you mean about Walpole and South Burlington, as opposed to Boston proper, say, or more specifically, South Boston. Yet, most everyone in the general public knew what the Confederate flag meant. George Wallace made certain that we did.

        As you have stated: there is more to the story.

  • Patrick Jennings Oct 26, 2015

    I know, I know. I am always the doubting voice here, but sometimes, to play off a Freud joke, a flag is just a flag.

    There is a remarkable amount of hatred, angst and anger (mostly from older people) surrounding the modern use of this flag and not all of these feelings are really focused on the flag as a symbol of racism. There is no doubt that racism is a visible, permanent, and obvious scar on the this flag but clearly there is more at play here.

    Are any of these schools upset if a kid wears a Che Guevara shirt? How about a WWLD? (What would Lenin Do?) complete with Soviet-style symbolism? What about my personal favorite, a Kentucky Fried Chicken logo modified with Stalin in the place of “the colonel” and the initials KGB rather than KFC? All of these are in existence and popular on sites like zazzle and red circle. Al of these people killed, murdered, enslaved and robbed. Are they to be washed from the public sphere as well?

    Would any of these schools be upset if a student accessed a Chris Rock YouTube video for others to laugh along with during school hours? Rock’s use of the N-word is quite well known.

    Items, like flags, can have multiple meanings. It can be a clear and certain message of racism and it can be a pop-culture nod toward non-conformity – a symbol of nothing more than youthful rebellion. Anthropologists argue that one group often tries to take control over a symbol or word (like the N-word) to either lessen the impact of that word or wash away it’s negative connotations. They are right, I dare any reader to watch more than three or four hours of Comedy Central and not be faced with the intense use of the N-word. Indeed, you wouldn’t go three songs on MTV without hearing it multiple times. So, certain black people have taken control of the word and made it theirs. Can the same apply to the rebel flag? To Stalin? To Che?

    Above Sandi Saunders notes that “the underlying truth and documented fact will always argue against that flag in any setting outside of Civil War commemoration unless you just want to look racist, secessionist, and anti-US.” A powerful statement. Is the “underlying truth” of a pop-culture-popular Che shirt resplendent with a red star “terrorist, anti-democracy and anti-US”…or is it just a shirt?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2015

      I get your point, but these other symbols simply don’t occupy the same historical space compared with the Confederate flag. Perhaps some people are offended by it. If so, they have every right to voice that concern. Whether it reaches a broader audience is a separate question. There is a reason why the Confederate flag is controversial and offensive to many and that has everything to do with a history that enough people believe is worth addressing.

      As always, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • J.A.Morrow Oct 26, 2015

    Those U.S. Marines and soldiers were sure glad to see the Confederate Battle Flag waving atop Shurri Castle on Okinawa during that battle-following the bloody assaults to take it from the Japanese defenders…
    The Battle Flag announced to witnesses that this citadel had fallen to the Americans-back when “guts” was still appreciated.
    It was some time before a Stars & Stripes was found.
    Southern soldiers have for several generations carried Battle Flags in harms way(including me).
    There are numerous other similar events in W.W.II-before PC .
    Not taught in today’s academia,however…

    • Mark H. Dunkelman Oct 26, 2015

      Academia hasn’t neglected this topic. John Coski’s authoritative book The Confederate Battle Flag discusses use of the CBF by Americans in World War II (“the war reinvigorated a sense of regional identity and the flag’s association with a southern martial tradition”) and includes a picture of a South Carolinian lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve raising a flag on Okinawa in April 1945. The caption mentions the same incident at Shuri Castle that J. A. Morrow refers to, adding, “The flag was a popular totem for Southern-born American servicemen in World War II, Korea, and more recent wars.”

      • Kevin Levin Oct 26, 2015

        Hi Mark,

        This is the same guy who mis-characterized James McPherson’s book on Civil War soldiers so I don’t expect that he will pick up Coski’s book. 🙂

    • Jimmy Dick Oct 26, 2015

      If you would have tried to fly the rag anywhere near me I would have ordered you to remove the symbol of racism immediately.

      Guts are still part of today’s military. Racism however is outlawed. So are the symbols of racism.

  • Sherree Oct 26, 2015

    Patrick,

    Lenin and Stalin, and their supporters, are not still killing and murdering. They belong to the past. That is the problem with the Confederate flag: it refuses to die as a symbol and as an idea. It still kills, as we found out again this summer in Charleston.

    Dylann Roof was self radicalized, taking his cues from white supremacist websites. For me–a Lutheran steeped in the philosophy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom we studied along with our catechism as the civil rights movement played out all around us–there was murder in two cathedrals: that of the Lutheran church that produced Bonhoeffer and, bewilderingly, Roof; and that of Emmanuel AME, the heart of the African American church in America–the church that produced Dr. King and that brought this nation to its knees. No, that flag is not just a flag. It has a well defined history that needs to be just that–history.

  • TF Smith Oct 26, 2015

    Well said.

    Along those lines, there’s also the rather significant point that the Civil War is part of American (as in the US) history, and so is a cross to bear for Americans; the stains on human history left by Guevara, Lenin, Stalin, whoever is not the same thing.

    Americans get to interpret, and re-interpret, and re-re-interpret American history, in the same way that (for example) Germans have wrestled with the legacies of their nation’s history (and have outlawed the display of the swastika); to try and deflect that reckoning through some sort of “kids are insenstive/free speech” meme is so much fluff.

    Every American knows – or should know – what the various rebel flags stood for, in 1861-65 and, for that matter, in 1961-65. It is only those who are trying to deny that reality who continue to try and excuse it.

    Best,

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