The recent decision by the community at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond has received a great deal of media coverage. It is certainly one of the most significant decisions on the part of an institution to remove Confederate iconography since the lowering of the Confederate battle flag in Columbia, S.C. this past summer. St. Paul’s has a deep historical connection to Richmond’s Confederate past. General Robert E. Lee and his wife attended services at St. Paul’s whenever possible throughout the war. In 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was confirmed as a member of the parish. Many members of the community gave their lives in service of the Confederacy. The site was also used to treat wounded soldiers. On the morning of April 2, 1865, President Davis was delivered a message from General Lee stating that Petersburg, could no longer be defended thus rendering Richmond indefensible. Davis quietly left the church, and evacuated the Confederate government and army from the city that afternoon.
Given the significance of the site, the amount of media coverage and its location in the heart of the former Confederate capital, the silence of the Virginia Flaggers is surprising. Over the past few weeks the Flaggers have devoted their energies to raising Confederate flags along roads in Danville, Virginia to protest the lowering of the flag at the Sutherlin Mansion, which is commonly known as the “Last Capitol of the Confederacy.” It is certainly not a high trafficked site and neither is it all that important. As a protest location it offered very little media coverage for the Flaggers.
In contrast, St. Paul’s is a potential media bonanza. Just picture Flaggers out in front of the church on Sunday protesting as Richmonders enter the church and leave. Since the announcement earlier this week we have heard nothing. Nothing posted to their Facebook page or Twitter feed. Remember, this is an organization whose core membership is based in Richmond, where they have protested for the past few years the removal of a flag from the Confederate Memorial Chapel, on the grounds of the VMFA, just up the street from St. Paul’s. It wouldn’t take much effort at all to move the circus to the church.
Perhaps their silence is evidence of serious planning that will be revealed in the coming days or perhaps it points to confusion as to how to move forward. Previous protests of public sites tended to frame local government as comprised of outsiders or individuals lacking a legitimate claim to represent their constituents. St. Paul’s is a different beast altogether. Its members live in the Richmond area and I suspect that many parishioners can trace their family’s membership back to the Civil War. Some of the Flaggers may be members and/or may know people who are members of the church.
This is going to be tough to negotiate, assuming the Flaggers do anything. This is not simply about whether history will be remembered and honored, but whether it will be worshiped. In other words the removal of Confederate iconography is not simply about distancing the community from a certain history and historic figures, but their identity as religious icons as well. [I say this with the understanding that stained glass windows depicting Lee and Davis will remain.]
It will also be difficult for the Flaggers to point to illegitimate stakeholders in this debate or that the church simply caved to certain pressures. Even a cursory reading of the news reports, and documents released by St. Paul’s, suggests that this decision was the result of careful consideration and prayer.
Regardless of what the Flaggers choose to do, this is a huge blow to their campaign. Yes, they can continue to raise their silly flags along major highways and other roads, but they have done nothing to advance their cause. Four flags or 400 flags will do nothing to bring the flag back to the Sutherlin Mansion or anywhere else for that matter.
If ever a decision pointed the way forward for other communities and institutions struggling with these questions, the decision made by St. Paul’s this past week is it.