Durham County

29 years ago, 14 Durham students were suspended for wearing Confederate flags to school. And the Klan answered.

A sample of Confederate flags is shown at Confederate Memorial Park in Tampa, Fla., Thursday. The Confederate battle flag, second from the top, is pictured with several other iterations of the post-secession Southern emblem.
A sample of Confederate flags is shown at Confederate Memorial Park in Tampa, Fla., Thursday. The Confederate battle flag, second from the top, is pictured with several other iterations of the post-secession Southern emblem. AP photo

Larry Coble was superintendent of the then-Durham County Schools in 1988 when 14 Chewning Junior High School students were suspended for wearing Confederate flags on their clothing in celebration of what they said was “Southern Pride Day.”

Three bus drivers were fired at that time for wearing flags tied around their legs and eventually won a $21,000 settlement with the help of the N.C. Civil Liberties Union after claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated.

The Chewning incident was on the mind this week of Andrea Bigner Koslow who was a 13-year-old white student at predominantly white Chewning when the 14 students were suspended for wearing Confederate flags to school.

Video: In advance of the Orange County school board's decision on Monday, the founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, Orange County, Latarndra Strong, shares the story of how it all began, on Tuesday, June 6, 2017, in Chapel Hill, NC.

Koslow said she thought about the incident while watching the Charlottesville protest against white supremacists on television on Aug. 12.

“It was right then and it is right now,” Koslow said in a message to The Herald-Sun. “Durham County [Public] Schools should ban these symbols of hatred.”

Koslow said the KKK also showed up at the school in the aftermath of the suspensions.

“Some time after the suspensions, a large group of KKK members showed up at the school in trucks with flags and on motorcycles and surrounded it,” Koslow said.

She said she has not spoken much about the incident in nearly 30 years, but felt compelled to do so after watching the incident in Charlottesville unfold.

“Enough with these symbols of hatred,” Koslow said. “Let's learn this time around and focus on healing and equality.”

Coble, now an education consultant who led the former county schools before the 1992 merger with the former city schools, remembers the suspension of the students as being a “dramatic” and “hectic” time at Chewning, which later became a middle school and is now The School of Creative Studies serving students in grades 6-12.

The suspensions came about after the 14 students, wearing small Confederate battle flag patches on their clothing, arrived at Chewning and were prevented from getting off the bus by then-assistant principal Fred Putney.

School policy prohibited dress that could disrupt the educational process.

“It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Coble said in an interview on Friday.

Coble said he was reminded of the suspensions after watching the events in Charlottesville, Virginia unfold.

He said area school districts are during the right thing by banning the Confederate flag, Ku Klux Klan symbols and swastikas from their campuses because of the negative connotations that flag has for African Americans and others who view it as a symbol of racial bigotry and hatred.

“In my opinion, I think the appropriate thing is to ban the Confederate flag,” Coble said. “It’s just unnecessary and we need to do everything to unify the diverse population we now have in this country.”

This week, schools boards in Orange County and Chapel Hill strengthened their student dress codes to ban the Confederate flag, KKK symbols and swastikas.

The Durham Public Schools is expected to amend its student dress code Thursday to ban the Confederate flag and other symbols that are deemed offensive.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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