‘Flaggers’ Protest Weekly In Richmond
By Scott C. Boyd
(April 2012 Civil War News)
RICHMOND, Va. – The decision of a state-run museum to prohibit the display of Confederate flags outside the historic Confederate chapel it controls has prompted an ongoing protest by Southern heritage activists in front of the museum every weekend since last October.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond controls the historic Pelham Chapel — also known as the Confederate Memorial Chapel — on its grounds. Its $1 a year lease with the Sons of Confederate Veterans for the chapel barred the outside flags.
The property dates from the 1883 sale of a house and 36 acres to R.E. Lee Camp No. 1, Confederate Veterans, for a Confederate soldiers’ camp, or home.
Donors to the home included Union veterans from Lynn, Mass., who gave the chapel organ. The chapel, which features stained-glass windows and hand-hewn pews, was dedicated to Confederate war dead in 1887.
The house and chapel are all that remain of the camp, which operated from 1885 to 1941. After the last veterans died the property was deeded to the commonwealth.
By Executive Order 35 in 1991, the VMFA acts as the governor’s agent in leasing the chapel to the SCV. Lee-Jackson Camp No. 1 of Richmond opens the chapel for tours. The lease is renewed every five years.
At its March 31, 2010, meeting the VMFA Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee unanimously passed two motions concerning the chapel: First, the museum would not renew the existing lease as written. Second, the museum “is opposed to flying the Confederate Battle Flag or any of its derivatives on the Museum property.”
The lease in 1999, which was renewed in 2004, allowed Camp No. 1 “to hang the Camp’s two Confederate flags only from the hardware permanently installed outside on the front of the Chapel porch to honor the memory of the Confederate dead who are memorialized at this site and premises.”
The new five-year lease read “Confederate national flags and battle flags may be prominently displayed at all times inside the sanctuary of this War Memorial to honor the memory of the dead Confederate soldiers, sailors and marines to whom the premises is dedicated, but no such flags may be flown on the exterior of the premises.”
According to several people familiar with the negotiations, the VMFA presented the new lease to the SCV on a “take it or leave it” basis. The SCV signed it on May 19, 2010.
The newly formed Virginia Flaggers began “flagging” the VMFA on Oct. 1, 2011, and has done so every Saturday since then, according to spokesperson Susan Hathaway.
Flagging is when people demonstrate peacefully at a site by carrying and waving Confederate flags there. Hathaway’s group stands on street corners around the art museum’s buildings in downtown Richmond holding Confederate flags to protest the VMFA’s exclusion of Confederate flags from the chapel porch.
Although the group is not affiliated with the SCV or United Daughters of the Confederacy, eight of the nine flaggers present when Civil War News interviewed them said they belong to these hereditary Confederate heritage groups.
Hathaway wrote to VMFA Director Alex Nyerges last Oct. 25 that the ban on exterior flags more than a year earlier “is a direct insult to our ancestors, and the 260,000 Confederate soldiers who died during the war, who are memorialized by the Chapel and its designation as a War Memorial.”
She told him the Saturday flaggers talk to people who did not know about the lease provision and distribute fliers detailing the museum’s discrimination against American veterans. “Several people were so angered after hearing our story and reading the literature, that they turned around and did not visit the Museum as they had planned.”
She wrote, “We would ask that you not insult our intelligence … and call the act what it really is … a bow to political correctness and an affront to the men who built that Chapel in memory of their fallen comrades.”
Nyerges’ written response on Oct. 28 noted that “A review of documents and images dating back to the time of the Soldiers’ Home and through subsequent decades after the Commonwealth acquired the property in 1941 reveal that no flags hung from the Chapel.”
Lee-Jackson Camp No. 1 hung the battle flags after it began leasing the chapel in 1993. “When renewing that lease in 2010, VMFA asked that the flags be removed, which returned the historic structure to its original appearance,” Nyerges wrote.
This echoes what VMFA Chief Officer, Collections and Facilities Management, Stephen D. Bonadies said in an interview: “Our perspective is, what is historically appropriate and accurate?”
He said the museum takes its mission to interpret the Confederate memorial park site seriously. He noted that the VMFA has spent $250,000 on maintenance for the chapel since 1998, including a new roof, exterior paint and restoration of some of the stained-glass windows.
Over the past year, the VMFA has placed four interpretive signs on the grounds which tell the story of the Confederate Soldiers’ Home.
Bonadies said the VMFA is trying to interpret the postbellum era, when the soldiers’ home was established on the site. He also met with Hathaway in October.
“There is no reason to install a flag on the chapel,” he said.
“We are not going anywhere,” she recently said of the flaggers. “We’re in it for the long haul. We’ll be out there until the flags come back up.”