Twice a year, Alexandria city employees hang three Confederate flags from traffic light poles in Old Town, at a busy intersection guarded by the statue of a pensive Southern soldier.
The tradition reflects the Confederate heritage of this history-drenched city, where tour guides wear Revolutionary-era garb, there is an official town crier and the Freedom House Museum marks the site of what was once the nation’s largest slave-trading depot.
In the past, the job of hanging the flags on Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day sometimes fell to African American employees, said a now-retired supervisor, who called the task “disgusting.”
But with Confederate symbols under new scrutiny following the church shooting in Charleston, S.C., Alexandria’s African American mayor and other city officials are poised to end the tradition.
Mayor William D. Euille (D) said the council, which is currently in summer recess, will review its policies on Confederate flags, statues, building and street names when it reconvenes in September. He and the other six council members each said the time has come for the city to stop raising the Confederate flag on city property.
“While we’re a Southern town, this is a part of our history that should not be celebrated all these many years later,” said Euille, 65, who grew up in Alexandria public housing and as a teenager protested the city’s policy of flying Confederate flags on all major holidays.
The twice yearly flag-raising ritual has been going on at least since the 1960s at the intersection of Washington and Prince streets, where a statue of an unarmed Confederate private marks the spot at which troops rallied in 1861 to march to Richmond.
Such reverence for the fallen South could seem out of place in modern-day Alexandria, where the population is increasingly young and diverse, just about every elected official is a liberal Democrat and voters overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama in both of his presidential campaigns.
But this riverfront city — like the rest of Virginia — still has the Confederacy in its DNA. Lee-Jackson Day, commemorating the birthdays of Lee and Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, is a state holiday. Route 1, a main thoroughfare, is also known as the Jefferson Davis Highway, after the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The Confederate flags raised by city workers belong to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as does the statue of the soldier. The organization’s Alexandria chapter president referred questions about the flag ritual to national organization President General Pamela Trammell, who did not return phone calls Wednesday. Because the city’s transportation department has responsibilities for traffic signal poles, hanging the flags has been the responsibility of transportation work crews.
The “Stars and Bars” flags have two red stripes and one white stripe, with a blue inset field decorated with white stars. They are the predecessors of the better-known Confederate “battle flag,” which alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof posed with in photos that he posted to a Web site before the shooting.
As late as the 1960s, the city flew Confederate flags along King Street on major holidays, much like Irish flags that now bedeck the thoroughfare on St. Patrick’s Day, Euille said.
In 1970, the council quietly stopped the practice. Since then, the flags have been flown only at the statue, and only on Lee’s birthday on Jan. 19, and Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday in May.
But the tradition held great importance for some residents of Alexandria, which is about 61 percent white and 22 percent black. Jim Neurohr, the city’s superintendent of transportation from 1982 through 2013, recalls a vacation he took in the early 1980s that included a date when the flags were supposed to be displayed. He forgot to leave instructions for his employees to do so.
When he returned, he said, he was told that an irate resident had come to City Hall to demand that he be fired. As a native of western Pennsylvania, Neurohr found the whole issue baffling.
“To think that no city official has had the thought or courage to say that maybe flying the flag is offensive to a large segment of our residents and just maybe the city should not be involved at all,” Neurohr said. “You lose the war, you don’t get to fly your flag. I have a lot of friends for whom this is very, very offensive, and it’s always been distasteful to me.”
In 1991, city officials decided that if Lee’s birthday fell on the federal Martin Luther King holiday, the Confederate flags would be flown the day before. They also said no African American city employee would be required to install or remove the flags.
Alexandria was part of the District in the early 19th century, but retroceded to Virginia in 1846 because residents feared slavery would be banned in the District. Toward the end of the century, The Post recorded at least two lynchings of black men in Old Town, within a block of City Hall.
A historical marker posted in 1929 by the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans illustrates the city’s historic Southern sympathies. It leaves out key details of the first war-related deaths recorded in the city after the Union invaded Alexandria on May 24, 1861.
The marker, at King and Pitt streets, does not recount that Union Col. Elmer Ellsworth rushed to remove a giant Confederate flag from a flagpole at the top of the Marshall House hotel, now the site of the Hotel Monaco. Nor does it explain that on his way downstairs, Ellsworth was fatally shot by hotel owner James W. Jackson, a proud Southerner, who was then slain by Union troops.
Instead, the marker memorializes Jackson, “killed by federal soldiers while defending his property and personal rights . . . the first Martyr to the cause of Southern Independence.”
Alexandria officials say they will post a more complete, city-approved version of Jackson’s story within the next six months, part of a broader effort to create “mini-kiosks” of history along King Street.
Madison Parks Prickett, a Georgia-born Alexandria resident, said the flags and statue represent a painful but important part of history. “I do not deny slavery was evil. The whole system was evil. I own that horrible part of my history,” Prickett said with a clear Southern accent.
“But do you think Boston and Chicago have got their racial relations squared away? The world is an imperfect place, and we are anything but post-racial in America.”
On the opposite corner, literally and figuratively, was Bobbie Fisher, an Arlington County resident. “As an African American woman, I’m outraged,” said Fisher, who has started a petition to rename Jefferson Davis Highway. “After the death of those nine church people in Charleston, the whole world is outraged.”
Springfield, Va., resident Caroline Edwards said she considers the flags and the statue “important for history’s sake.”
“If we took it down, we’d forget,” Edwards said of the statue. “We should remember it as a dark period in our history.”