The Confederate flag, with its diagonal stars and bars over a red field, is to some people a romantic reminder of the Old South and to others a symbol of racial intolerance. Either way, Prince George's school superintendent Edward J. Feeney has decided not to take any chances. On Monday he ordered a student painting of a Confederate flag and soldier removed from the foyer of John Hanson Junior High School in Oxon Hill.
To the school principal, Landon O. Shelton, the painting, one of five student works displayed proudly at the school's main entrance, was just another art project that had been up since last December without, he said, drawing any particular notice.
"I hadn't had a comment from a teacher, parent or student. Until I got that letter from Greg (Beard), I had no idea that it (the flag) was associated with the KKK -- just the Civil War and historical events."
Beard, an official of the Prince George's County Educators Association, saw something else in the flag. Several minority teachers at the school and some parents, he said, had complained last February that the 3-foot-square painting was offensive to them, particularly in light of what many blacks perceive as the beginning of a new wave of oppression ushered in by the nation's much-publicized political shift to the right. The student body of the school is 52 percent black.
"Both blacks and whites recognize the Confederate flag as a universal totem within racist organizations," said one of the teachers, who asked not to be identified. "There have been several incidents already in the county, at DuVal and Crossland (high schools). Maryland has never been a part of the Confederacy. I don't see the need for it there," said the teacher.
Last October, some Crossland High School students said men purportedly representing the Ku Klux Klan's "youth corps" attempted to recruit students in the school parking lot. In early March, an alleged drug deal between a white DuVal student and some black outsiders precipitated a black-versus-white free-for-all, during which a white student donned a white hood and jumped up and down on the top of a car.
Beard asked John Sisson, president of the teachers union, to call Shelton about the mural which, ironically, decorates a school named for a Revolutionary War patriot who led Maryland in pressing for a union of the original 13 colonies. Sisson said he was concerned that the painting could ignite a racial incident at the school, but Shelton said he had received no complaints and saw no reason to remove it.
Beard wrote a letter to Feeney, with copies to the media. On Friday, Feeney took action.
"He said, 'Take it down, get rid of it,'" reported schools spokesman Brian Porter, who said Feeney knew nothing about the painting until the letter arrived.
"Taken in isolation it is a fairly innocent occurrence, but the superintendent believes that if misconstrued, it could be seen as a derogatory symbol, especially to blacks," said Porter. "And he would have taken it down, whether Greg Beard wrote a letter to the media or not."
But Saundra Croston, the black art teacher who assigned the work, saw no derogatory meaning in it.
"Nothing was meant by it," said Croston, who has taught art for 10 years at the school. "The child had the talent and I let her do it. I'm an artist first -- I think more of the art value."
Still, shaken by the attention drawn to the painting -- actually a depiction of the second of the three official Confederate flags -- Croston said, "I'm aware, I'm a black person; it was the furthest thing from my mind."
But to one black mother, who asked not to be named, the painting evoked the political connotations of the flag sticker now seen on many Maryland bumpers. She recently had to explain to her younger son why it is on so many cars and what it means.
"It was like, 'Mommy, why do I keep seeing those flags?'" she said, and she had explained to him that it was a symbol of many things, including the South's heritage of slavery. The mother, who grew up in the deep South, said she was appalled to see a flag that "connotes racism and many other nonproductive attitudes" in the foyer of her older son's school when she paid a visit to the science fair last month. o
She said, "If it was the sign of the Nazis (swastika) it would have come down immediately."
The artist's mother was just as clearly upset about the attention given the painting -- including a faculty meeting Monday with area school superintendent Parthenia Pruden -- and the removal of her child's artwork. She said she did not feel that past racial strife is prologue for today's problems. She, too, requested anonymity.
"What happened 100 years ago, people can't get a job on today," she said. "We should focus on the future, not on the past. I can't help what happened back then. All this energy is wasted. It should be spent on our children."