The VMFA’s Confederate Flag Problem

Seeing the Confederate flag waving in and around Richmond isn’t exactly an attention-grabber for those of us who’ve lived here a while. But when protesters waving the flag started appearing outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a lot of us were curious – just what exactly is going on? And more importantly, how should Richmond deal with its Confederate past?

When driving down Boulevard, the last thing you might expect to see in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a group of people waving Confederate flags (okay, maybe not the LAST thing… this is Richmond after all). But at the VMFA? My question–along with many of my friends and Richmond’s Twitterati–was what’s going on here? Knowing the history of the location, I first assumed it was the anniversary of some of event, like how you can usually find Confederate reenactors guarding Robert E. Lee’s statue on his birthday.

Well, it turns out that I was wrong and we were actually witnessing a Confederate Flag protest. You gotta ask yourself: what’s the fun of living in a Southern city without a good old fashioned Confederate flag scandal? So, apologies while I spend today’s column in the present day rather than the usual 1861.

First, let’s establish some historical context here. The land on which the VMFA sits was once a camp for Confederate veterans, known as Robert E. Lee Camp No. 1, also known as the “Old Soldiers’ Home.” The camp was formed in 1884 as a home for needy, wounded, and infirm Confederate veterans after the war. It was purchased and maintained by donations from their fellow veterans, both Union and Confederate. The camp covered roughly 36 acres and housed hundreds of veterans over the years. When the last resident veteran passed away in 1941, the land was deeded to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Over the years, the land would be used for two of Richmond’s best known landmarks on Boulevard: the VMFA and the Virginia Historical Society. The only surviving buildings from the original camp are the headquarters of the camp, known as the Robinson House, and the Confederate War Memorial Chapel (also known as the Pelham Chapel).

In 1993, an agreement was made between the Commonwealth, the VMFA, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization to allow them to lease the chapel. According to the VMFA, the Confederate battle flag began flying at the chapel after the Sons of Confederate Veterans became the lessee. When the lease was renewed in June of 2010, the board of trustees at the VMFA made the decision to ask that the flag be removed from the chapel.

The only piece of the puzzle that I can’t seem to put together is why it took so long for the protests to start? It looks like the momentum for protests really didn’t kick into gear until October of this year. The protesters, identifying themselves as “flaggers,” are part of a larger grassroots effort organized via blogs and social media to call attention to instances where the Confederate flag has been removed or is being considered for removal. Somehow the VMFA’s action drew the attention of the group and they’ve been organizing regular weekly protests ever since.

As a Civil War buff, I struggle with this issue of the Confederate flag. When I’ve heard about Confederate flags flying over city hall buildings or government buildings in the past, it always seemed like a no-brainer to me that the flag shouldn’t be there. But for an actual Confederate historical landmark, it seems a little heavy-handed to remove the flag since it’s a place that was built to commemorate those who died fighting for the Confederacy. They may have been the losing side, but the flag represents the honor of those who fought and died, and it seems appropriate to me that it should be there.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Any person living in the South knows the context of the Confederate flag has changed over the past 150 years. The flag has been perverted over the years and sadly, is recognized more today as a symbol of backwards thinking, racism, and hate. Are there people who fly the flag out of respect for their Southern heritage and eschew its other meanings? Absolutely. In our society, however, it’s a difficult thing to wave a flag and expect people to parse your specific meaning.

Because of this, I totally understand why the VMFA would want to distance themselves from the flag. Here we have the newly-renovated museum, a shining example of a city moving forward and upward, truly establishing us as a place of culture and art and bringing us out of the shadow of our bigger city neighbors. So when a tourist in Richmond for the first time sees this amazing museum and then rounds the corner to see a Confederate flag waving, the juxtaposition is harsh, and I can see why the museum wouldn’t be wild about that mixed perception.

The VMFA hasn’t come out and said any of this, but it’s fairly easy to see the predicament they’re in. That being said, the Museum has made a really strong effort to honor the past of the Old Soldiers’ Home, placing several new illustrated signs explaining the history of the camp, along with providing information on their website and during public tours about the history of their location. In addition, the VMFA claims to have done research indicating that Confederate flags weren’t actually on display at the chapel during the days of the camp, which they cite as a reason for asking for their removal.

When I first set out to write this article, I leaned toward allowing the Confederate flag to fly outside the Pelham Chapel, but after doing more research and thinking about the issue, I’m more conflicted about it than when I started. It’s a tough issue with no clear answer. Recognizing our Civil War past and reconciling that with what we want Richmond to become is something we’re going to continue to struggle with for another 150 years. It’s something that defines our city and will continue to do so.

I respect the VMFA for acknowledging and helping to preserve the chapel and its unique part in the history of the city. I also have respect for the people who are waving Confederate flags because they’re concerned that we’re going to forget an important part of our city’s past. It’s hard to say what will happen next with the protests, but I welcome any opportunity for us to reflect on our city’s history and our vision for it moving forward.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry.

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