At Epsom Central School, the Confederate flag will be a hot topic

  • The Confederate flag on a mural at Epsom Central School. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The Conferate flag on a mural just outside the gymnasium at the Epsom Central School. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, September 04, 2017

It’s not clear where the flag is planted on the grade-school mural, a map of the United States just outside the gym.

Perhaps it’s in the Florida panhandle. Or maybe southeast Alabama. Could be southwest Georgia.

Nothing about the Confederate flag, it seems, is clear, no matter where you see one. Not when it’s on a flagpole in front of a statehouse. Not when it’s waved during a march to prove a point.

And not when it’s inside the Epsom Central School, where the blue X-marks-the-spot stripes lined with stars, on top of the red background, has brought this civil war home, to our own backyard.

A handful of teachers at the school are offended by the flag. They want it replaced with the hats of Union and Confederate soldiers, the Blue and the Gray.

Others say, hold on. Stop being so darn politically correct.

“If you look at it and say, ‘I’m not offended, the Confederacy was part of American history, fine,’ ” said Dave Cummings, chairman of the Epsom School Board. “But I do feel like if you look at it you could say maybe there needs to be a little more context.”

Cummings neatly summed up the dichotomy that’s been ringing in our ears lately. Does the flag represent history or hatred?

Can it mean both? Does your support to keep the mural flag right where it is make you a racist? If you want it removed, are you pushing political correctness to an absurd level?

It’s an issue about black people and white people, but it’s an issue that’s never black and white. In fact, the discussion is so complex that the school’s principal, Pat Connors, has announced the topic will be open for discussion after Tuesday’s regularly scheduled 6 p.m. school board meeting.

The flag debate is not part of the school board agenda, but it’s up for grabs afterward, during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Five bucks says it’s going to be the juiciest part of the evening.

“When people came to me recently about this, I said I want them to express their thoughts to the school board directly,” Connors told me by phone. “I asked staff members who wanted to talk about it to come to the meeting.”

It’s doubtful the artists who painted the map of the United States on the school wall a decade ago thought the flag tucked into the right-hand corner would ever cause a stink.

After all, other pieces of the American historical landscape were included as well. Like a piece of paper covering the Northeast, headlined with “We the People.”

There’s a riverboat with two smokestacks puffing along the Mississippi area; a buffalo and a stagecoach in the Midwest; three teepees lined up in what looks like the Nevada-Idaho-Wyoming sector; and a shovel and a pickax resting on an 1848 gold claim in southern California.

So what’s wrong with including a Confederate flag as part of the historical mix?

Plenty, some say.

The symbol has been connected to white supremacist groups and neo-Nazis, especially after the violence last month in Charlottesville, Va., where a peaceful counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed by a car allegedly driven by a white nationalist.

And then there are the statues of Confederate leaders from the Civil War. There’s one of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, and that’s why white nationalists said they were marching down there. They wanted Lee left alone, atop his horse.

But many others believe it’s time Lee dismounted.

So now statues of Confederate generals and rebel flags are tied together, running counter to changes trying to infiltrate the public consciousness.

And that’s where things get dicey.

Connors, who’s been the Epsom principal for 13 years, said the mural was painted about 10 years ago. A former school board member donated money, asking for a painting “to teach kids about history,” according to Connors.

And while Connors didn’t want to touch the subject with a 10-foot flagpole, he openly questioned why all the fuss now, after the flag had stood peacefully on the wall for a decade.

“That was my question, and I did not have an answer,” Connors said. “If it was okay for the past nine years, why all of a sudden would we have to change it?”

To answer that, I called Jan Santosuosso, a special education teacher at the school. She brought her concern to Connors, telling him she didn’t like what the flag stands for today, its impact having changed through the decades.

To many, the Confederate flag represents slavery and racism and an ugly chapter in our history.

“The flag has changed its meaning over time,” Santosuosso said. “It’s associated more now with different groups – hate groups – and it does not seem to belong in a public space, especially in a school where teachers are trying to help students get along with each other and build tolerance.”

Asked how many of her colleagues support her, Santosuosso downplayed the significance, telling me: “It doesn’t matter how many people join me. I’m doing this for myself, and if people come (Tuesday), that’s great.”

Connors said, “I know that she mentioned a few others. I have not surveyed the staff.”

Once word surfaced, Joy Shaheen of Epsom wrote on Facebook: “I will be (at the meeting) to keep (the flag). It’s history. If we are not going to teach history why have history teachers?”

Epsom resident Debbie Eldridge Sargent, who no longer has kids at the school, also said the flag should stay. It wasn’t an issue years ago, so why now?

“I never in my times of learning about history ever hear or feel that a Confederate sticker represented racism,” Eldridge told me. “To me it represents a part of history that was not always kind to men and women of the United States, but I don’t think it’s racist.”

Eldridge said her sister married a black man. She said that reflects her tolerance and acceptance of others.

“I make no distinctions between race, religion, politics,” Eldridge said. “I have transgender friends and gay friends, and I treat them with human kindness.”

But where does the Confederate flag fit into all of this? Whose argument carries more weight, seems more logical, represents true justice?

Cummings had a different question. Something about the kids. Something about how they themselves might view the Confederate flag.

“My real focus heading into the meeting,” Cummings said, “is considering how this impacts the students.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)