The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happens to South Carolina’s Confederate flag now that it was taken down? Nobody knows yet.

The honor guard removes the flag outside the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia on Friday. (John Bazemore/AP)

The Confederate battle flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse was taken down Friday, following weeks of resurgent debate over the flag’s prominent placement near the state’s Capitol in Columbia.

But after the flag was carefully brought down from the flagpole, folded and rolled up, it was carried in an armored vehicle to a nearby museum and placed in storage until authorities in the state figure out what to do with it — as well as how much this will cost. And while the flag’s removal was a high-profile issue decades ago, and again very recently, what happens to it now is up in the air.

While the bill signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley (R) on Thursday states that “the flag shall be transported to the Confederate Relic Room for appropriate display,” it does not outline what, exactly, it means by “appropriate display.”

The head of the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, where the flag was taken Friday, said that there are a lot of ideas about how to display it down the line. “We did talk to a lot of public officials, and we just started formulating plans right and left, concepts that could be done,” Allen Roberson, the museum’s director, said in a telephone interview. “We’ll try to refine that considerably.”

[In parts of the state, confusion and anger over the flag’s unpopularity]

When the flag was removed Friday, it was handed to Roberson, who went with agents from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division to an armored vehicle that drove to a side entrance of the museum. A museum employee who oversees artifacts carefully unrolled the flag, Roberson said, before packing it in an acid-free box with acid-free tissue strips.

Following that, the flag was placed into a storage room near the back of the museum. An alarm was set, and the flag was locked away while people try to figure out how to display it. Roberson said there are numerous possibilities and that none of them are frontrunners. The flag could be exhibited as the last one to come off the South Carolina statehouse, he said, or used as part of a memorial to people from South Carolina who died in the Civil War.

Before signing the bill on Thursday that ordered the flag’s removal, Haley said the state would “bring it down with dignity, and we will make sure it’s put in its rightful place.” The question of what that rightful place entails was broached during the increasingly emotional debate held in the state House of Representatives on Wednesday and into early Thursday morning, before lawmakers passed the bill that Haley signed. 

[State legislators engage in heated debate before agreeing to take down flag]

During the House debate, Rep. Rick Quinn (R) wanted language added to the bill lowering the flag that would have discussed how it should be placed in the museum, but after an hours-long back-and-forth among lawmakers, it was separated into a different bill. This other bill would require the museum to display the flag “alongside other distinguished military exhibits covering the Civil War,” and it tasked the museum with figuring out the cost of an “appropriate, permanent, and public display” by the beginning of next year.

As a result, the museum’s staff and board members will have to collaborate on a plan for displaying the flag — along with a budget — by Jan. 1, when they will send it to lawmakers, Roberson said.

The total cost remains a question mark until there is a plan for how to display the flag, according to the South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, which gives the state’s general assembly estimates on how much legislation will cost or how much revenue could be generated.

An analysis presented to lawmakers before they voted — a review which remained accurate after the vote, an official with the revenue office said Friday — said that the office could not offer a real estimate until a plan is in place. The analysis did provide some idea of how much it will cost to give the flag a new home, saying that creating a display for the flag could cost the state an estimated $1.02 million and “recurring expenditures of $130,000.”

This analysis also said that some of the approaches the Confederate Relic Room was considering could have run a much higher tab, costing in the range of $10 million to $15 million, “depending on design proposals.”

On Friday, Roberson called that number “way, way inflated,” and said it came from a suggestion that would have called for a new gallery or a new courtyard to host the flag. While he said it is too soon to determine precise figures, he said the eventual cost of displaying the flag “would probably end up being a lot less” than that $10 million to $15 million range. He said museum officials have already discussed it and feel they can substantially cut down the cost.

“I’m sure it can be done for a whole lot less,” he said, adding that a more precise cost could depend on what direction they get from the legislature early next year. “We’ll get the numbers way down. We’ve already thought about that.”

The state’s financial analysis noted that its estimates were guesses that “will depend upon the final criteria established for appropriate display of the flag,” which remains to be seen.

“We just don’t know,” Roberson said. “But I’m thankful we have time to plan. We’re very conscious of the context of this, both what supporters of the flag feel and in light of the horrible, racist massacre in Charleston. We’re very conscious of that.”

As for the area where the flag stood until Friday morning, those costs are more clear, the revenue office’s financial analysis states. The state Division of General Services, which is responsible for returning the area with the flagpole to its earlier condition, told the revenue office “the impact would be minimal” and can be handled by its current resources.

This post originally identified the museum’s director as Allen Robertson (which is not his name) rather than Allen Roberson (which is his name). I’ve updated and corrected it.