SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox 150 years ago this week, ending the Civil War and, with it, the Confederacy.
The Confederate battle flag, of course, still flies in the hearts and minds of some Southerners. Since April 1, however, it has also flown in fact — outside the Chattooga County Courthouse in Summerville.
April in Georgia is Confederate History Month, but the battle emblem isn’t just history in this small mountain county. It’s happening now, and it’s awakening the old warring sensibilities and allegiances. The debate is also exposing the complicated nature of race relations in small Southern towns, where people work and play together, even if they don’t pray together on Sundays.
The flag was raised by the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, with the approval of the county.
“It shouldn’t be on public property,” said Summerville Police Chief Stan Mosley, who is African-American. “My simple hope is that it’s up there for a heritage reason to represent their ancestors and not to express any form of hatred or prejudice.”
This latest chapter in post-Civil War history began three years ago, when the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans approached the city of Summerville looking to erect a monument to Confederate war dead in a small city park a couple of blocks from city hall. The city declined the proposal because the organization had not secured funding for the project, nor did it have renderings of what the group wanted to put up, said Summerville Mayor Harry Harvey.
‘I really didn’t see an issue with this’
That’s when the group turned to Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters. Chattooga is one of a handful of Georgia counties left that has a sole commissioner form of county government.
Winters, whose great, great, great grandfather fought for the Confederacy, wrote a letter in support of the project and agreed to help place the monument in front of the courthouse along Commerce Street in Summerville. The plan also called for a series of eight flags with importance to Confederate history to fly on a rotating basis, including the square battle flag.
The towering granite monument went up last summer along with the flagpole. All of this was timed to coincide with the end of the sesquicentennial. In October, the first of the historical flags was raised and, for the SCV, the commemoration had begun.
“At the time I really didn’t see an issue with this,” said Winters, who said he is not a member of the veterans group.
Mosley, who has been police chief in Summerville for 17 years, is the sole African-American officer on the force. Sitting in his office on Friday, just a stone’s throw from the courthouse, he said friends, family members and members of the community started calling him as soon as the sun started going down on the flag that Wednesday.
“‘Did you see that flag at the courthouse?”’ he recalled.
Not only had he seen it, but he also knew the men who wanted it raised. He said they are men who “do good in the community,” fundraising for city charity events for underprivileged kids and other causes. But he considers the move tone-deaf at best.
Mayor Harvey, who is African-American, said he had a face-to-face conversation with Commissioner Winters earlier this week and told him the flag was inappropriate for public grounds.
“That’s the Confederate battle flag,” Harvey told the AJC. “There are other groups that use that flag to promote discrimination and racism. I agree that something needs to be done about it, but it doesn’t need to be flown at a government facility."
‘The blame lies solely with me’
Chattooga is 83 percent white and 10 percent black.
Winters said he has begun hearing from not just African-Americans but from many in the business community, who believe the flag has no business on county property and will damage the image of a place known for Finster Fest, celebrating folk art genius Howard Finster.
“The blame lies solely with me,” Winters said in an interview Friday afternoon. “Our county has made tremendous progress over the last several years, and I’m hearing that this sets us back. We cannot allow this to be a divisive issue for us, and I will not allow this. I should have put more thought into the placement of the monument and how we rotate the flags.”
One thing all sides agree on is that they don’t want their town to become defined by this flag controversy, especially at a time when downtown revitalization efforts are in full swing, from installing planters for flowers along the main street to redevelopment of vacant buildings.
“If this becomes an area of controversy for us we’ll have to find another solution,” Winters said.
But with his cellphone going off relentlessly on Friday, Winters didn’t know for sure what that solution might be. He said he was not looking forward to a conversation with the local SCV camp, which might include a discussion of moving the monument and flag pole altogether.
‘That’s an American flag’
The Sons of Confederate Veterans say the flag honors the struggle of their forebears.
“That’s an American flag,” said Steven Weaver, a member of the group. “It may be a Southern flag. But it is a historical American flag. It is part of the history of this country. The intent of the monument and the flag is to honor the memory of those veterans.”
Weaver said his family has called Chattooga County home since 1838.
“I see a lot of things on a daily basis that are offensive to me, but it might mean something to someone else. I can’t dictate to them,” Weaver said. “The courthouse belongs to everybody in the county. There, people can see it coming through town. It promotes (Civil War) tourism.”
Ronnie Winters, father of the county commissioner, said the flag “has a special meaning to me,” and people shouldn’t be offended by it.
“If during Black History Month you had a flag and wanted to fly it there, it wouldn’t be offensive to me,” said Winters, 68.
But Summerville City Manager Russell Thompson had a different take.
“If you’re supposed to love your neighbor, why do something that hurts them when you don’t have to?” he said.