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The Mystifying Support for the Confederate Flag in the Northeast Corner of a Union State




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Indeed. The local reaction to Rice's Aug. 26 editorial in the local paper, neutrally titled "Flags and symbols, which may be harmless to some, can be offensive," was, with few exceptions, pretty hostile. Readers commented on both the News-Herald website and on Facebook, chastising the newspaper for only printing one side of a divisive issue and laying into Rice for the audacity to question the freedom of speech.

And though online commenters are hardly a representative sample, the sentiments of flag supporters in Willoughby echo a growing clangor of battle flag support all around the state.

To refresh, we live in the state of Ohio, which is a Union state.

But ever since Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina early this summer, the Confederate battle flag debate has been forcibly re-thrust into the national spotlight. Roof was seen in many published pictures brandishing or wearing the Confederate battle flag. His license plates bore the image of three of the flag's iterations.

In the wake of the massacre, Confederate flag supporters have crawled out of the woodwork, in Ohio and elsewhere, to publicize their support for Southern heritage, and to assert that the flag had absolutely nothing to do with Dylann Roof and his actions.

South Carolina, for its part, removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds in July, where it had flown since 1961. Similar actions were taken across the South: in Alabama, Florida, on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Equal and opposite protests mushroomed in response, and questions about the flag's place in the American past and present have even trickled into the discourse of presidential candidacies. John Kasich, for one, said he supported South Carolina's decision to remove the flag.

But these conversations, which tend to be heated, aren't just happening in the South.

In Bucyrus, Ohio, in late August, a small group of local flag supporters held a parade that one organizer said wouldn't have been possible without the momentum generated by South Carolina. Until this summer, they'd only ever been able to gather five or 10 vehicles for a demonstration.

In Norwalk, Ohio (just south of Sandusky), a group called the North Central Ohio Confederate Supporters now hosts a monthly rally outside the Huron County Courthouse. Organizer Ray Back told the Sandusky Register that his group is exercising its free speech rights, and that the members are eager to educate "ignorant" passersby.

In Port Clinton, the police chief got heat for wearing a gaudy Confederate flag vest, and then for refusing to apologize. The local NAACP chapter chimed in to say that the item was especially insensitive, given the rocky relations between the black community and law enforcement.

Out west of Cleveland, a Lorain County Confederate Support Group emerged after county Democrats withdrew from the fair when they heard Confederate flags would be displayed and sold. The group now solicits support on its Facebook page where its mission is described thusly: "Lorain County Confederate Support Group is here to educate people of the meaning of the Confederate flag and be the voice of souhthern herritage support [sic]."

Organizer Tom Maybaugh has continually maintained that his support for the flag is not about racism — "It's not about racism. Not one little bit," he told the Chronicle-Telegram — and insists that the flag is a sign of free speech and "people standing behind what they believe in."

Which is one reason, perhaps, that the flag issue has caused special friction in Willoughby. There, the local high school's mascot is the 'Rebel,' symbolized not by a James Dean-ish anti-authority figure, but by a grimacing Confederate soldier. And there, the Confederate battle flag has long been embraced as a symbol of school pride.

Lisa Stevens is an '85 alum of Willoughby's South High. She's now the president of Rebel Families — "mostly a group of volunteer moms," she says, "a pack of rule followers, not rebels" — and says that, in accordance with current school policy, the group doesn't promote or sell any school apparel (what they call spirit wear) featuring the Confederate flag.

"I think it's just known that it would not be appropriate," Stevens tells Scene. "I received an inquiry from an '81 alum this summer when the topic really heated up nationally, requesting some flag spirit wear. I let her know there was no longer any available."

In 2010, the organization (which was known, at that time, as South Rebel Moms and was formed in light of the fact that women weren't allowed in the Booster Club) was discouraged from selling a T-shirt in preparation for the Eastlake North game, the annual "Border Battle," which depicted a Confederate flag. Then-principal Paul Lombardo intervened to say that the school district did not endorse or recognize the flag and that the school would subsidize a redesigned shirt. At that time, 250 had already been sold.

Though the flag was officially banned from school grounds in the '90s, there have been scattered incidents of students wearing it to football games throughout the years. Even this year, Stevens says, a boy showed up to a game with a Confederate flag on his ballcap.

"He was asked by the assistant principal to remove the hat or else leave the stadium," Stevens says.

At her class' 30-year reunion this summer, Stevens says the flag topic came up regularly in conversation.

"I don't think I have ever talked to an alum who doesn't miss it, or at least the days when it wasn't an issue in Willoughby," Stevens says. "My memories from the '80s include the beautiful flag, not even depicting Southern culture but our 'glory days.'"

Current South High principal Patrick Ward concurs. "There is a Willoughby reality, and then another context that our kids don't know," he says in a phone call with Scene.

Asked facetiously if there are, for example, African-American students enrolled at South High, and whether or not Civil War and Civil Rights material is being taught in American History classes, and whether or not students are probably aware of the flag's larger context, Ward says sure.

But still.

The two groups making the Confederate flag an issue out there are parents and alums who attended South High in the '80s and '90s, and the news media.

"On a day-to-day basis, it really never comes up." he says.

This is only Ward's second year as principal at South High, having spent the previous 14 as a teacher and assistant principal in the Mayfield City School District, but he says he can only recall one instance when a student wore Confederate flag imagery to school.

"We asked the kid to change his shirt and that was it," he says. "Like anything, there's a certain set of expectations around dress. Just like a drug symbol would not be appropriate in school, the Confederate flag wouldn't be either."

Specifically forbidden in the Willoughby-Eastlake code of conduct, along with pajama bottoms, spiked jewelry, crop tops, and "undergarments worn on the outside of clothing," is any dress that causes or is likely to cause "a hostile, intimidating, degrading, offensive, harassing, or discriminatory environment." Confederate flags fit squarely into that category.

But again, other than the occasional letterman jacket from a parent or cousin, it's a rare occurrence on campus. The flag was removed from the gymnasium and school grounds in 1993 when a visiting basketball team wrote letters expressing dismay and discomfort at the racist symbol. Visiting parents were reportedly shocked. The Associated Press swooped in; they'd covered a similar debate at Toledo's Bowsher High School, also "the Rebels," in the '80s.

Then-principal Glenn Caroff said that though the flag would be removed, the team's name was not an issue ­— indeed, several other Ohio high schools have a Rebel mascot, including CMSD's John Adams — and he wouldn't forbid students from waving Confederate flags at games.

"That is an individual freedom-of-speech issue," Caroff said at the time.

Not so much these days. Patrick Ward says that the district "really had a conversation" about the policy back in the early 2000s, and that most of his students were in the third and fourth grades at that time.

"They're just so young that when they get here — unless attention is called to it, like in the past couple of months — they don't understand the issue ... . Look, in 1959, Union High School split into two and we ended up on the wrong side of Euclid Avenue, the south side, and that's why we're having this conversation. Flash forward to today, it's really not a controversy."

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