Saturday, May 24, 2014



Patriot Flies Flag In Face Of Threat

February 16, 1994|By Mary Schmich.
    • Every day Ernest Griffin raises four flags outside his funeral home on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Chicago's South Side. One is the American flag, one an African American flag, another a flag honoring prisoners of war.
The last is the flag of the old Confederacy.
It's a curious sight, this widely reviled Confederate symbol fluttering in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, along a boulevard named for a hero of the civil rights movement.
Why on earth is that flag there?
In the nearly four years the Confederate flag has flown next to the Griffin Funeral Home, people have occasionally straggled in to ask the question, but they never expressed anything more than troubled curiosity. Until last week. That's when the anonymous letter arrived.

"To whom it may concern:
This will be put as bluntly as possible. That Confederate flag must come down. We are totally disgusted that such a racist symbol could be displayed at a South Side institution. . . . Any African American who waves a Confederate flag is a Tom. "This is your initial warning. You have until March 1 to get that flag taken down. If by that time the flag is not removed, we will remove it ourselves."

Meanwhile, an identical letter had been sent to a small neighborhood newspaper called the South Street Journal, where it fell into the hands of Ron Carter, the 40-year-old publisher.
Like many people in the community, Carter had never noticed the flag. Now he was, in his words, "appalled." "I see the Confederate flag and I get stomachaches," says Carter.

He decided to demand an explanation from Griffin.
Griffin is 81 and, in case it's not clear, is black. And he will patiently and passionately explain his Confederate flag to anyone who asks, which he did for me on Tuesday, still dressed in the elegant gray suit and white French cuff shirt he had worn to that morning's funeral.
"Anyone who objects to this flag being here reveals that they are not knowledgeable about the history of the subject matter," he said.

Griffin's interest in the Civil War is rooted in an odd convergence of circumstances.
In 1978, more than a decade after buying an old china factory and converting it to a successful funeral home, he discovered that it sat on the site of the old Camp Douglas, which during the Civil War had been first a Union training center and then a prison camp for Confederate soldiers.
Griffin had never heard of Camp Douglas. Now he realized he had been born on the site, a few blocks from the funeral home. He also learned that it was here, at Camp Douglas, that his grandfather had enlisted in the U.S. Colored Infantry.

But what moved Griffin most was learning that 6,000 imprisoned Confederate soldiers had died on the site. "Thousands of men were crowded into this camp, in their cotton uniforms, in subzero weather," he said. "Little heat, bad food, filth, no running water for toilets. They contracted every conceivable disease. Typhus, smallpox, dysentery. And the idleness. There was nothing for them to do but sit and brood."
In 1990, at a ceremony attended by Mayor Richard Daley and other dignitaries, Griffin dedicated a Civil War memorial next to the funeral home parking lot. It was a tribute to his grandfather and to the men who died here.

The outdoor display includes miniature mounted flags of all the states that fought in the war, along with memorabilia from both sides. And there's the large Confederate flag, flown at half-staff.
"That flag is not a symbol of hate," he said. "It is a symbol of respect for a dead human being."
So that's what he told Ron Carter the other day when Carter came looking for an explanation. After four hours of conversation, Carter came away "swayed."

"I had an overall awakening regarding the Confederate flag," Carter says. "Even though I believe there are people who fly the Confederate flag to be spiteful and to use it as a racial type of symbol, I see now there is a history to it as far as America is concerned."

Carter still intends to publish the threatening anti-flag letter in the South Street Journal, along with an article explaining Griffin's views. The letter-writer may not buy Griffin's explanation. But Griffin has resolved that if someone takes the flag down, he'll just put another up.

"When 6,000 people died on the site where you live and eat and earn your daily bread and butter," he said, "if you have any humility within your being, you have regard for the people who died."