Tension is mounting. A crowd of people is growing somewhat impatient across South Carolina.
It’s been two years since the Confederate flag came down from the State House grounds. As part of the removal agreement between lawmakers, a museum agreed to display it. But as more and more pressure builds, it’s still not displayed.
WIS went behind the scenes, to get a rare look at that controversial banner.
Wrapped in protective paper, folded up inside a cardboard box, stored in a crowded space within the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia, sits the Confederate Battle Flag removed from the State House monument more than two years ago.
Of those historic artifacts that adorn the walls of the Relic Room, are battle flags carried in war and fought under. There are pieces of cloth that are tattered and worn, hand-sewn or hand-painted, many pierced from gunfire.
“Damage to these flags could happen in a lot of ways,” Curator Joe Long says. “You see the marks of battle.”
Long glows when explaining the symbolism behind each flag. “It’s had a hard and a long life,” he says, gesturing to one of many flags on display.
“These flags were not just a symbol, they served a vital link in the chain of command,” Long says. “They each have their own story of the men who fought under the flag and the engagements it was in, but also of the people that created the flag in the first place.”
He shares these stories, walking through the halls of artifacts strategically arranged in a chronological line of events through history.
“Whether it was a group of ladies at home with high hopes and perhaps romantic notions or later on, whether it was factory workers somewhere working on a primitive sewing machine as part of a bigger war effort,” Long says.
Long says each flag has significant historic value, like the flag of the first South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. It greets visitors at the Relic Room entrance. It’s made of silk and decorated with flowers. Long tells its story in a solemn tone.
“When the state seceded from the Union, there was one regiment raised immediately for the defense of Charleston. It was these guys. There were five teenagers shot carrying this flag in less than five minutes. As each one fell, another one picked it up and carried it forward,” he says.
Among all the flags, uniforms, weapons, photographs, and paintings here, enters a newer artifact – a flag that’s about 2 years old – the flag that flew at the South Carolina State House until July 10, 2015.
Since its removal, a choice lawmakers made after a racially-motivated attack on a Charleston church weeks before that killed one of their own, it’s been stored away inside the Relic Room’s archive. Lawmakers chose to display it here – as part of that decision to take it down.
Registrar Chelsea Grayburn carefully removes the tissue paper lining that flag’s storage box. The flag she looks upon is a piece of history she watched unfold in person on that July 2015 morning.
“So this is the flag here. It’s not very grand here,” she says as she unfurls the newer textile. “So, it’s kept in acid-free tissue paper like you’d keep any other textile. Even textiles that are 200 years old.”
Seeing and touching this artifact is a bit different from handling some of the older pieces, she says.
“It’s very too near to where I am now to be able to see what in 100 years is this going to mean to people,” Grayburn says.
It will sit in a box until a display is planned and constructed. But that’s more easily said than done, according to Executive Director Allen Roberson.
For $200,000, Roberson’s idea for a flag display could work in this spot of the Relic Room, a spot that’s now Long’s office and storage space. Otherwise, Roberson says it would take a multi-million-dollar museum expansion to get it to work.
Roberson says he’s had no feedback from lawmakers on this latest idea to convert adjoining rooms to act as a separate display for the Confederate flag, nor has he gotten any indication lawmakers will approve state funds to cover that price.
“Well, it’s an unfunded mandate primarily. We haven’t received any funding for that,” Roberson says.
Still, the tension is mounting, as is pressure for the museum to act and display the flag soon.
In a State House grounds rally on July 10, 2017, marking the second anniversary of the flag’s removal, The South Carolina Secessionist Party encouraged people to push for both lawmakers and the museum to get the flag on display soon.
Aside from funding and space issues, there’s another reason Roberson says the flag is still not up; Roberson feels the State House flag doesn’t carry the same historical value as those flags currently on display that was actually carried into battle.
He says hanging the State House flag among the others prematurely could detract from the meaning of those authentic battle flags.
“I don’t think it would serve either flag really well. They’re different,” Roberson says. “This flag that came down from over the State House has a wide palate of meaning. I mean, people interpret this flag in a lot of different ways. So, I really feel the proper display, and I feel this pretty much in my gut, needs to be a separate display that interprets that flag alone.”
He won’t force the flag where he doesn’t see fit.
Back along WIS’ Relic Room tour, Long points out another South Carolina history story symbolized by a flag upon a wall.
“If you look carefully, there’s a tiny bit of gold paint, the last remaining example of the stars that were in the blue field here,” Long points to the worn Union flag. “These men were in Union service. There was actually a half-dozen of these regiments of South Carolina men who were fighting on the Union side. All of these men were freed slaves from the Beaufort district.”
In a room full of stories, another question remains: what story will accompany the controversial flag, still stored away for now? Roberson says it will be up to lawmakers to decide what story behind the State House flag is told in its display.
“We understand that a lot of people feel very strongly about the flag on both sides and hopefully we can approach it with some sort of reasonable middle ground,” Roberson says.
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