A Confederate flag divides a Virginia community


A Confederate flag flies close to Interstate 95 between Quantico and Fredricksburg, Va. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

The huge Confederate flag flew high above I-95 north of Fredericksburg, startling Anthony Sanchez on his daily commute.

“It was a provocation,” said Sanchez, who teaches at a community college. “It just bothered me that someone would go to all that trouble, to put up a flagpole that high and a flag that big. . . . It’s a hostile statement.”

The 90-foot-tall flag pole is firmly (and legally) planted in private property on the other side of a tree barrier from the highway near mile marker 134. The flag, measuring 30 feet by 22 feet, is a reminder that in Virginia, the battles of 150 years ago are still divisive and deeply felt.

This banner was raised by an activist group, the Virginia Flaggers, whose 40 or so core members say they want to protect the Civil War standard. The group rejects the idea that the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and hate. On the contrary, Barry Isenhour, who is active in the group, says that when he sees the giant flag along the interstate he feels pride and reverence.

As he drives through Stafford County for his work as a sales representative for a winery, Isenhour said, he often thinks of all the Civil War battles that were fought in the area. He has ancestors who fought for the South, some of them buried in unknown graves.

“I know there are soldiers up there lying under buildings, under trees, who have never been properly buried. It rends my heart,” he said. “They are veterans. They put their lives on the line for the common people they love.”

The Flaggers group was formed a few years ago after the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond removed Confederate flags from the Confederate memorial chapel on its grounds, and the city of Lexington banned the standards from city light poles. Group members are frustrated by what they see as political correctness run amok, and they frequently bring their banners to protest at sites where flags have been removed.

Last weekend, some joined a Sons of Confederate Veterans protest of the decision by Washington and Lee University officials to remove Confederate flags from the chapel where Gen. Robert E. Lee is buried.

The removal of the flags sparked anonymous threats to the university, officials said, which led them to close the chapel for the weekend and temporarily bar visitors wearing reenactment uniforms or displaying the flags.

There have also been threats against the Flaggers, Isenhour said. That is one reason, he said, that he is unwilling to identify the owner of the property in Stafford where the flag has been flown since Memorial Day. The owner, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, offered his land to the Flaggers after hearing about the flag they raised last year along I-95 in Chesterfield, outside Richmond.

“There are all kinds of people who threaten us, who literally call our employers, slander us in the press and stuff,” Isenhour said. “It’s sad to say, but there are a lot of people out there who have hate in their heart.”

He said he doesn’t think of the flag as a symbol of a fight to preserve the institution of slavery, in part because he believes the war was a defense against Northern aggression. The historical meaning of the flag, he said, should not be distorted by the message of the hate groups that have carried it — groups that have been repeatedly denounced by the Flaggers organization.

Aston Haughton, president of the Stafford County chapter of the NAACP, sees it differently. The flag, Haughton said, “symbolizes racism, oppression. It reminds people of the days of slavery.”

When he drove past the flag, he was upset. So were a lot of people he knew, both black and white, he said. They pulled together a group to see what they could do about it. But the permits are legal, the property is private.

“We have to see if we can work it from another angle,” he said. “Our mission now is to make sure they don’t keep going county to county and keep putting these flags up.”

Stafford County spokeswoman Cathy Vollbrecht said the county government “received inquiries and complaints from citizens” after the flag was raised in late May.

“After careful review, we determined that no laws have been violated,” Vollbrecht said in a statement. “Stafford County works to bring people together, to build a common vision for the community, and that remains our goal.”

Growing up in California, Sanchez said, he never saw Confederate flags. Not until he finished law school and moved to Virginia in 1992 did he realize that, for many people, the flag remains a part of modern life. He has grown used to seeing small Confederate flags, here and there around his neighborhood. But a giant standard flying along the interstate still shocks him.

“It’s a racist statement,” he said. “I wish someone would put a flag up right next to it, or across from it. A Union flag.”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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