Orange County

Tough words and a request to keep talking about Confederate flags in Orange County

A Confederate flag flies over Highway 70 in Orange County, North Carolina.
A Confederate flag flies over Highway 70 in Orange County, North Carolina.

Orange County residents and others came together Monday to talk about the Southern history that both binds and divides them.

A conversation about the Confederate flag is long overdue and should continue, said Latarndra Strong, founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition. She related two stories shared with her since a Confederate battle flag went up Saturday on U.S. 70.

One person emailed her about a 13-year-old Latino student targeted with expletives and insults Monday as a driver flying a Confederate flag drove past, she said. The other, an elementary school student being harassed daily for her progressive views.

"It is a shame that we have come to a place that kids find themselves on a daily basis having to be confronted with these issues for so long," Strong said. "As adults, we have to do something about it."

The Human Relations Commission-hosted Community Conversation was held just two days after a long-anticipated, 20X20-foot Confederate battle flag was hoisted onto a 60-foot flagpole. However, it had been in the works for over a month after residents raised concerns about the planned flag and asked the county to come up with some rules.

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The rules, if approved, would limit property owners in the county's unincorporated residential areas to one flagpole, up to 24 feet tall, bearing up to three 24-square-foot flags. Flagpoles would have to be 50 feet from all property lines.

Properties in nonresidential areas could have up to three 54-foot flagpoles and three 96-square-foot flags.

The rules would not apply to property in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough or Carrboro. Existing flags and flagpoles would have to comply with the new rules within one year.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners will hear public comment on the proposed rules May 15 at the Southern Human Services Center in Chapel Hill.

Most of those who spoke Monday said they thought the rules were neutral and reasonable. That will be key if there is a legal challenge, said Adam Lovelady, an assistant professor in UNC's School of Government.

Since flags are protected speech under the First Amendment, he said, the Supreme Court decided in a prior case that limits put on them cannot single out the content of any particular flag. Rules can limit the size and location of flags and the height of flagpoles, for instance, if there is a compelling government or public interest, he said.

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The conversation was sparked earlier this year when property owner Robert "Doug" Hall Jr. secured a permit for a 60-foot flagpole on his land near the Division of Motor Vehicles office on U.S. 70. Hall also reached out to the group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC) about helping him install a mega-size flag.

ACTBAC, a self-described Southern heritage group, wants to raise flags across Orange County, in part, because the county chose a site across the highway from Hall's land for a new jail.

The group also is protesting the removal of Confederate symbols from the Orange County Schools, the words "Confederate Memorial" from the Orange County Historical Museum, and other local decisions.

It's a separate effort from the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans campaign to raise Confederate flags across all 100 North Carolina counties.

Rural landowners already pay taxes for services they don't use, Hall said, and now they're being told how to use their land.

"Everybody has a right to their own freedom of speech," Hall said. "What I like may not be what y'all like, but we all have the same right and what we do on our private property should be where we can express our opinions. Everybody won't agree with it, but we have to look the other way if it's something that is offensive to us."

ACTBAC founder Gary Williamson noted the county only had setback rules for flagpoles and flags when Hall got his permit. The need for more rules only became an issue when word got out about the flag Hall wanted to fly, he said.

"This is not a diverse ordinance. This is regulating one man and one man, period, because of his history, what he believes, and his personal property," Williamson said.

While acknowledging there is a difference between private and public property, Hillsborough Town board member Jennifer Weaver shared her own coming to terms with her family's Southern history. A woman from the audience joined her, offering a comforting hug as the words hung in Weaver's throat.

Jennifer Weaver
Jennifer Weaver Contributed

"I thought about talking about my great-great-great-grandfather Green from [Alabama] and how family lore says he treated the enslaved men and women on his farm well and set them free before the war ended," Weaver said, "and about how that lore is bolstered by stories of gifts crafted and passed back and forth between generations of master and slave."

"It's a story told by my family to itself over generations so we could feel a little bit better about having owned other humans, as if there's a nice way to to steal someone's freedom and hold them in bondage over threat of violence and death," she said.

She can mourn their sacrifices without "fooling myself into thinking their cause was just," Weaver added.

Hillsborough resident Katherine Walker minced few words, saying it's time to stop being reasonable.

"The Civil War was fought 153 years ago; the Confederates lost," she said, looking directly at a group of flag supporters.

"There is hardly any other example anywhere in the world in which the losing team gets to fly their flag around. I think the United States of America has been extremely reasonable when it comes to freedom of speech."

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb