A request by the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History for the city to remove the Confederate flag from its grounds is causing heated debate.
The Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History has asked Danville City Council to remove the Confederate flag from the museum’s grounds. The museum’s board of directors voted Sept. 25 to send the request to the city.
The museum plans to move the flag inside to be part of an exhibit of the history of the Confederate flag to be installed in early 2015. The museum is housed in the Sutherlin Mansion.
For some, including many African-Americans, the Confederate flag is a reminder of slavery and a symbol of racism. Others see it as an emblem of Southern heritage that’s not meant to glorify slavery and prejudice.
An official with the Sons of Confederate Veterans calls the move “a gratuitous insult to 70 million people who are descended from very fine people who fought for the South in their time.”
“ This is a canard,” said Ben Jones, chief of heritage operations with the SCV, during an interview Friday afternoon. “This is bologna. It serves no good purpose.”
Jones, a former Georgia congressman, played Cooter Davenport on the television show “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
The Confederate flag is “a remembrance of our ancestors” and is not meant to offend anyone, Jones said.
“ Why couldn’t they just put another flag like it outside?” he said, referring to its proposed removal for an inside display.
A Sept. 30 letter to Danville City Manager Joe King from museum Executive Director Cara Burton asks the city to remove the flag from its grounds, citing a newly-adopted museum board strategic plan adopting a vision “to be the Dan River Region’s leader for integrated awareness of history, culture and community.”
“ The plan emphasizes diversity and welcomes all citizens to enjoy the programs offered to the public,” Burton wrote.
“ The board feels the removal of the flag from the outside of the building to a display inside the museum will help to fulfill its mission ‘to promote history and art in the Dan River Region,’” Burton wrote. “We hope that you will support the museum board in this request of city council since it will in no way impair the museum’s fulfilling its mission of preserving Danville’s history during and after the Civil War.”
King, when contacted Friday, said he sent copies of Burton’s letter to council members. City council will discuss how to proceed with the letter at its work session following its meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, King said.
Mayor Sherman Saunders declined to comment until council discusses the issue.
City Councilman Larry Campbell Jr. called the museum’s request a “smart move” and a “strong statement” and said it would not affect tourist visitation at the mansion.
“ It makes a strong positive statement that Danville is really trying to move to the next level of engaging all citizens and working together,” Campbell said.
The flag is a reminder of slavery for African-Americans, Campbell said. For many, the flag represents division, he said.
Jane Murray, president of the museum’s board of directors, said more than 200 leaders from the community “from all walks of life” were interviewed for input on a strategic plan for the museum. The board held a retreat in April where incoming and existing museum directors reviewed themes from the interviews.
Many community leaders said the museum should remove the flag, Murray said.
“ We tried to get a broad coverage of the people in Danville,” she said.
The board decided removing the flag from outside the museum and putting the exhibit inside was the right thing to do, Murray said. She declined to answer how many members may have voted against the idea or whether the decision was unanimous.
“ I don’t think I should answer that,” Murray said, adding that the vote was “overwhelmingly in favor” of the flag’s removal.
Murray said one of the museum’s main goals is to teach people about Danville’s role in the Civil War and the years following it.
The inside flag exhibit will focus on four Confederate flags and their histories, Murray said.
Burton said no single person requested the flag’s removal.
“ There was no specific request like there was in the 1990s when [City Councilwoman] Joyce Glaise made the request,” Burton said.
In 1994, Danville City Council gave permission to the Heritage Preservation Association to place a monument with the third national Confederate flag on the front lawn of the Sutherlin Mansion. Since the city owns the mansion and its grounds, city council has control over the flag, Murray states in a Sept. 30 letter to museum members.
The association became responsible for the flag’s maintenance, purchase, removal and replacement, King said. The city owns the monument and the flag pole, he said. The flag belongs to the association, Murray said.
In the waning days of the Civil War, the Sutherlin Mansion served as the final home of the Confederate government after the fall of Richmond. Danville is considered the “last capitol” because it marked the last time the full Confederate government met in one place before the armies in the field surrendered.
The new theme for the museum, “The Last Capitol of the Confederacy, The Beginning of a United Nation,” will help define the museum’s goal to be more inclusive and improve the scope of its work, according to a news release from the museum. The new theme recognizes the museum’s 40-year history and the legacy of the Sutherlin Mansion.
The Rev. Avon Keen, president of the Danville/Pittsylvania County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the flag needs to be relegated to inside the museum in glass including a history of the flag and the Civil War.
Education about the Civil War should present both sides, not just the Confederate version of history, Keen said. Make sure and educate the next generation about what happened “so we will not repeat the mistakes we made,” Keen said.
“ We do not want to erase either side of history,” he said. “We want to make 100-percent sure the next generation will not make the same mistake.”
“ I hope the city will move forward to meet that request [from the museum],” Keen said, calling the flag’s possible removal “past due.”
We should not be flying flags that represent interests that have fought against the nation’s main beliefs and freedoms for everybody, Keen said.
Len Riedel, executive director of the Blue & Gray Education Society in Chatham, opposes the flag’s removal and said it would “deny the history of the site.”
“ It’s part and parcel of the history of the site,” Riedel said. “The Sutherlin Mansion was the Confederate White House, it was the head of government. It’s historically accurate and appropriate for the museum.”
The flag that has caused more controversy among the African-American community is the Beauregard flag, which is not the one outside the museum, Riedel pointed out.
The flag outside the museum is a government flag that began and ended with the Civil War, he said. It’s not the one that was flown by the Ku Klux Klan following the Civil War, Riedel said. The KKK has been photographed flying several flags, including the U.S. flag, he said.
Removal of the flag outside the museum would “cheapen the value of the tourist attraction” at the museum, Riedel said.
“ You can’t have the tourist dollars and cheapen the value of the tourist attraction,” he said. “People come to Sutherlin Mansion because it’s where Jefferson Davis stayed for the week. As historic sites go, it doesn’t get much better than the Sutherlin Mansion and to deny that portion, I think is wrong.”
Crane reports for the Danville Register & Bee.