Earlier this summer, Jason Broughton noticed a Confederate flag hanging outside a home in his neighborhood in Barre. It happened to be Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Broughton wondered, was this on purpose?
A note: This story contains racist material.
Broughton had been noticing more Confederate emblems: “Bumper stickers, license plates that can be put in car windows, and a whole host of things."
Broughton happens to be Vermont’s state librarian. He’s also a Black man who grew up in South Carolina. There, he said, the Confederate flag is ubiquitous, and its message straightforward. For him, it meant: steer clear.
“In the North, it is very, very different,” Broughton said. “I have been pleasantly surprised by someone driving up and they are kind of, ‘Oh, welcome to our town,’ or ‘Welcome to the Northeast Kingdom.'”
Broughton said it leaves him a bit perplexed: “You have this Confederate flag, but you are basically so hospitable!”
Broughton, being a librarian, is aware that Vermont sent a tenth of its population to fight for the Union in the Civil War — against the Confederacy. So it seemed unlikely to him the flag in Vermont would be in memory of fallen soldiers.
Which left him wondering: “What is it that people take away from that flag that they like?”
Broughton is not the only person in Vermont wondering what’s up with the Confederate flags he sees. He’s not even the only Vermont librarian asking Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered journalism project, to look into this. The former director of the Milton Public Library, Meghan Bellavance, asked the same thing.
“Why do some Vermonters display the Confederate flag?” she wondered. “What does that mean to them?”
To answer this question, I (obviously) needed to talk to people who fly Confederate flags. But there aren’t a ton of Confederate flags in Vermont. It’s more like a smattering. And it’s not as if they show up on Google Maps.
I promise I did find someone who flies a Confederate flag. I also spoke to a political scientist who studies racial attitudes, to help make sense of what the flag-flyer said. But let’s start with a historian: Gaines Foster, who teaches the history of the South and Civil War memory at Louisiana State University.
Once you understand the flag’s history, Foster said, its appearance in Vermont becomes a lot less surprising. First of all, it didn’t become the Confederate flag until after the Civil War. During the war, it was the battle flag for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
That flag was widely used to memorialize soldiers from across the Confederacy in the years after the war. But Foster says it wasn’t popularized until some 60 years after emancipation. And at that point, he said, it wasn’t about the Civil War at all. It was about lynching.
“It’s the late 1930s that Congress comes very close — for the first time — to passing a federal anti-lynching bill,” he said. “And that’s what scares the South.”
Foster said that’s when the Confederate-themed consumer items you see today began to be produced.
Pretty soon, he said, “people have Confederate flag bikinis and Confederate flag beach towels and Confederate flag flip flops, and God knows almost everything.”
Foster said the Confederate flag grew even more popular in 1948. If you’re a history buff, you might know that’s the year President Harry Truman integrated the military. It’s also the year former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond ran for president on a platform of racial segregation. His short-lived Dixiecrat party adopted the Confederate flag, and waved it at its convention.
“And so in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Confederate battle flag becomes a symbol of resistance to the civil rights movement, and [a symbol of] the maintenance of segregation and the maintenance of white supremacy,” Foster said.
My mission was to learn why some Vermonters fly the Confederate flag. My biggest fear in doing that was that I might inadvertently give a platform to hateful ideas. Ultimately, I found, it was impossible to answer the question without wading into some pretty distasteful stuff.
But the most challenging part of reporting this story came first: I needed to convince someone with a Confederate flag to talk to me.
My colleague Elodie Reed volunteered to assist me on this mission. We stopped by the Iron Horse Roofing company’s warehouse in Chelsea, which has a large Confederate flag atop its roof, but no one was there. I called the owner on the phone — but he hung up almost as soon as I spoke the words “Confederate flag.”
Twice, we stopped by the place in Barre that Jason Broughton said had put up a flag on Juneteenth. We knocked, and knocked, and even hollered through an open window. We were asked to leave.
The neighbors gave us a tip about another Confederate flag on Route 14, but we got caught in a thunderstorm, and then became so turned around, we had to ask directions to the flag from a drive-thru bank teller.
At last, the bank teller pointed us to a Confederate flag owner who would talk.
We observed a sign saying “No Trespassing Keep Out,” and knocked on the door.
A woman named Denise led us upstairs to her boyfriend David, a 71-year-old man in a black leather vest who was eating sliced fruit. He was happy to talk, but wouldn’t share his last name.
“The reason I started flying my Confederate flag,” he said, “is because it does irritate me that you've got these Black Lives Matter flags flying everywhere. And I think it's wrong. And my way of rebelling against it is flying a Confederate flag.”
This wasn’t the first time someone told me they flew the Confederate flag as a show of resistance to Black Lives Matter. The week before, a young white couple had told me the same thing about a Confederate flag icon on the back of their car. Although unlike David, they wouldn’t agree to be recorded.
Then, David said this: “I have a grandson that's mulatto, so it's not that I hate Black people.”
The first time I heard the word “mulatto” in contemporary conversation had been the week before, when I was talking with that other couple. The girlfriend had told me her “kids are mulatto.” She even showed me pictures of them, as if it proved she wasn’t racist.
“So it’s not that I hate Black people, but I do think some of them are pretty stupid,” David said. “I do have a few Black friends that are friends. But I’ve met some that — and this is literally — if they trip over a stone, ‘Some white bastard’ — is the way they’d put it — ‘put that rock there for them to trip over.’”
I asked David if he thinks a Black person should feel scared when they see a Confederate flag. He said no.
“If you don't like it, don't look,” he said. “I don’t look at your Black Lives Matter flag. You want me to get rid of my Confederate flag? Change it from ‘Black Lives Matter’ to ‘all lives matter.’”
The Black Lives Matter website states the following: ”We work vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people.” But that’s not what David hears when he sees the words “Black Lives Matter.”
Still, I didn’t understand why he would choose to wave a Confederate flag, if “all lives matter” was the sentiment he was after.
“Don't you think that the Confederate flag is designed to intimidate Black people?” I asked.
“Black Lives Matter, when they say they're the only ones that matter, that intimidates a lot of people,” David replied. “If they’re gonna go off and try to intimidate me, then I'm gonna intimidate them.”
“And so you do want to — you wanna intimidate them?” I asked.
“Yeah, because they intimidate me,” he said.
David was particularly sore that someone had stolen one of his Confederate flags. He said he’d bought a few more to replace it.
What surprised me about hearing all this from David was the fact that he’s not white. Although he passes for white, he told us he has Native American heritage. He’s Penobscot: a tribe in Maine. In fact, his apartment is covered wall to wall with Native imagery of all kinds. There are pipes, dreamcatchers, a bear hide, and lots of pictures of wolves.
And yet the atrocities white people committed against his ancestors, he sees as over, as part of the past.
“When you get right down to it, really most cultures have had it rough at one time,” David said. “Look at the Jews. You know, they got slaughtered. But life goes on.”
The question we set out to answer was why do some Vermonters fly the Confederate flag. David, it seems, flies the flag to show his opposition to Black Lives Matter, an organization whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy.
“Any calls for equality feel like calls for oppression when you're privileged,” said Candis Watts Smith, a political science and African American studies professor at PennState University. Smith researches American political behavior and racial attitudes.
Smith considers people like David, who think Black Lives Matter is about Black supremacy, to be willfully misunderstanding the movement. But, she said, she can understand where they might be coming from.
“I think that for people who feel like there’s too much change, or that they are on the back end of demographic shifts, or a kind of changing wave of culture around what’s good, and what’s right, is too much for some people,” she said.
A discontent with changes to the racial hierarchy, Smith said, is the same sentiment the Confederate flag has been used to express in the past.
“I can see the Confederate flag being used as a symbol to say, ‘Enough is enough with all of these changes,’” she said.
She said both her research and her personal experience have taught her not to be surprised by that flag anywhere in the United States. Smith has lived in North Carolina, in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, in Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.
“I've noticed similar patterns around people's racial attitudes across these places,” she said. “And so I think that there is a myth around the South being the kind of most racist region in the country.”
But she said, “the data show that every state has its own special brand of racism.”
And, it turns out, whatever brand of racism your state has, some people are likely to express it with a Confederate flag, Vermonters included.
Thanks to Jason Broughton and Meghan Bellavance for the great question. If you have a question about Vermont culture or anything else, ask it at bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there, you can vote on the question you want us to tackle next, and sign up for our newsletter. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @bravestatevt.
This episode was produced by Emily Corwin, with editing from Angela Evancie and Mark Davis. Brave Little State’s theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed; engineering support from Peter Engisch.
Special thanks to Logan Strother and Elodie Reed.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and VPR members. You can support us at bravelittlestate.org/donate.
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