The banner known as the Confederate flag is ubiquitous in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee.
Travelers coming to Bristol on Interstate 81 from Tennessee can spot a large version of the flag atop a massive hill on the north side of the highway.
The image of blue stripes criss-crossing a red backdrop emblazons license plates, cigarette lighters and swimming trunks. It can be seen waving from front porches, pickup truck beds and tailgates at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Confederate flag is as commonplace in the South as it is controversial across the country. Supporters say the flag preserves history and acts as an emblem of southern pride. Opponents call it a racist symbol that represents a legacy of southern white supremacy.
Tensions about Confederate symbols have flared in recent weeks as cities across the country have called for the removal of Confederate monuments. Virginia has been among the most recent headlines.
In a 3-2 vote in April, the Charlottesville, Virginia City Council voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in a downtown park. Some of the council members said the statue “represents a legacy of racial oppression,” according to the Charlottesville Daily Progress.
In May, a group of torch-wielding protesters in support of the statue gathered in the park. Their demonstration was met with a counter-protest the next night. The fate of the statue is in limbo.
In the wake of national conversations about Confederate symbols, the Herald Courier spoke to historians and those who fly the flag to examine its various interpretations in Bristol, a town that largely supported the Confederate States of America.
One flag, different views
The flag that Guy Gentry flies in his yard in Bristol, Tennessee, is unique.
It is a hybrid: two-thirds of it consists of the Confederate flag; the rest is the Tennessee state flag.
Gentry said he sees the Confederate flag on par with the American flag.
“I don’t understand the people who are trying to condemn it,” Gentry said. “That makes me so mad to think about that. The flag is part of our history, and that is the bottom line.”
Gentry said he doesn’t have family history in the Civil War, although he is an Army veteran.
Buckey Boone said he’s old enough to remember when the modern Confederate flag became popular.
Boone, 67, said he was about 12 when the civil rights movement was in full swing. At the time, those against the civil rights movement used the flag.
“It became popular as a symbol against people of color who were asking to attend decent schools and wanting to have the same rights as other people,” Boone said.
Boone is the chairman of the board of the Appalachian Peace Education Center in Abingdon. The center promotes peace and justice in the community, focusing on issues such as racial harmony, health and the environment.
When asked his view about Confederate monuments being taken down, Boone said there are many honorable people that deserve statues that did not support slavery — people like his grandfather, who helped support local colleges in Tennessee, or his sister, mother and grandmother, all music teachers.
“I would like to see more monuments for people who are honorable and right,” he said.
Raised in Southwest Virginia, Boone said he grew up being taught to respect Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee. His views changed as he learned about the full scope of the war.
“Lee was an honorable person, but he made a bad choice — he decided to fight on behalf of states that wanted to be slave states,” he said.
The Anti-Defamation League lists the Confederate flag as an official symbol of hate. The league’s website calls the flag “a potent symbol of slavery and white supremacy, which has caused it to be very popular among white supremacists in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
A “complicated” past
The flags that would have flown over Confederate camps during the Civil War “looked very different than the flag that everyone has come to associate with the Confederate States of America,” said Brian S. Wills, director of The Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
The first national flag of the Confederate States of America looked like a simplified version of the modern U.S. flag, with two thick red stripes, a white strip in the middle and a circle of white stars in a blue box in the upper left-hand corner.
The design seen on modern Confederate flags was originally the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag, although at the time its shape was square.
Wills, who used to teach at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, said that even after the Civil War, the prominence and purpose of various Confederate flags shifted.
Many of the photographs of the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan, which formed in the early 1900s, feature the American flag, Wills said. That was purposeful.
“They were trying to stress Americanism, nativism — nativism meaning that ‘America was for Americans,’ ” Wills said.
The modern Confederate flag was appropriated by opponents of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Wills said.
“That was one of the symbols that gets brought into that period and gets associated with that kind of position,” he said.
The flag, Wills said, “is a lot more complicated than people think.”
The flag today
In 2015, after Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black parishioners at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bristol held a Confederate flag rally.
Following the shooting, the national discussion turned to taking down Confederate flags and memorials. But a group of 30 people traveled from Bristol, Virginia, to Johnson City, Tennessee, to show their support of the flag.
Confederate flags are just a fraction of the many Civil War remnants in Bristol. A symbol of Bristol’s Civil War heritage, a Confederate soldier statue, stands near Cumberland Square Park in Bristol, Virginia.
Streets, highways and schools are named after Southern generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. East Hill Cemetery holds Confederate grave markers. The students at Sullivan South High School and Patrick Henry High School call themselves the Rebels.
Up until the mid-20th century, a number of high schools in Virginia were named after Confederate generals, according to Bristol historian Tim Buchanan. The number has dwindled as schools have opted for name changes.
As of 2015, nearly 200 schools in the U.S. were named after Confederate generals, according to an analysis by Vocativ, a news, science and technology site.
Bristol, Virginia, has two schools named for such generals: Stonewall Jackson Elementary School and Washington Lee Elementary School.
A request for Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, to change its name in 2015 did not succeed. Stonewall Jackson High School in Quicksburg, Virginia, still remains, which uses the image of Jackson holding the Confederate flag on a horse.
As images of Dylann Roof with a Confederate flag circulated the internet in 2015, debate about the flag entered mainstream politics.
Corey Stewart, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, has been vocal about his support of such monuments.
In April, when the demonstrations erupted in Charlottesville, Stewart tweeted: “Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.”
A court has barred Charlottesville from removing the statue while it weighs a lawsuit opposing the action, according to the Daily Progress.
“What disturbs me is the left is using political correctness to shame people because they want to celebrate their history and their heritage and I think that’s wrong,” Stewart told the Herald Courier in a recent interview.
On the topic of Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Susan Platt’s calls for removing all Confederate monuments in Virginia and renaming all highways and buildings named for Confederates, Stewart said: “I’m going to fight like hell to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“That’s part of our history, and look — our history isn’t always pretty. There are blotches in everybody’s heritage and everybody’s history, but you can’t try to erase it, you can’t try to, as Condoleezza Rice said the other day, you can’t try to sanitize it. It is what it is and we have to protect it.”
This past week, two parks in Charlottesville that were previously named after Confederate generals have been renamed, according to the Associated Press. Lee Park is now Emancipation Park and Jackson Park became Justice Park after the City Council’s decision.
Wills, the director of The Center for the Study of the Civil War Era, said that as a historian, he doesn’t believe such historical markers should be erased from the public sphere.
“I think it’s better to learn from history than to feel comfortable with history,” Wills said. “History is not a particularly comfortable thing.”
The Civil War and Bristol
The Bristol area was primarily Confederate territory during the Civil War.
The newspaper was Confederate, three hospitals in the region were Confederate and five Confederate generals came from either Bristol or Washington County, according to Buchanan.
Buchanan, president of the Bristol Historical Association, said despite the primary narrative of the war, the farther south into Tennessee you traveled, the more you would find Union sympathizers or people who didn’t take sides.
“A lot of the mountain people, in Carter County [for example], wanted to stay out of the war,” he said.
Kingsport and Sullivan County were Confederate lands while Jonesborough and Greeneville leaned toward the Union.
After the war, it’s believed that Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederate States of America, spent a night in Pleasant Hill, which was completed in 1873 and was the third house built on Solar Hill in Bristol, Virginia, according to the Bristol Historical Association’s website.
Davis delivered an address to a large crowd of Bristolians who had gathered in the front yard and on the lot across the street.
The family that owned the home, the Wood family, tried to stay out of the dividing lines of the war, Buchanan said. Andrew Johnson stayed at the home on his way to Washington after Abraham Lincoln was shot.
Buchanan noted that to this day, some of Bristol’s families have roots that go back to the Confederacy.
“The flag did not mean slavery to a lot of these folks,” Buchanan said. “It has become politically incorrect, which I think is sad.”