GETTYSBURG, Pa. — In this historic Pennsylvania town where Union forces defeated Confederate troops 152 years ago in a decisive victory against a rebel government determined to keep black people enslaved, the Confederate battle flag still flies.
As Gettysburg festooned itself in Confederate flags and other Civil War memorabilia to mark the famous battle’s anniversary this weekend — against a backdrop of renewed national controversy over the flag — some among the town’s black community condemned the banner as a deep-rooted symbol of Confederate rule and slavery, while others expressed indifference. But most agreed that simply removing it from view does little to address the racism it has come to symbolize for many Americans.
“It doesn’t matter if you remove the flag,” said Camera Townsend, a 33-year-old black resident who grew up in Gettysburg. “Someone is going to act out if they’re going to act out.”
The latest public debate over the Confederate battle flag was ignited by the June 17 killings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly by 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof, who venerated the flag in images posted online. After the shootings, demands have been steadily rising for the flag to be removed from public buildings, and companies including eBay, Sears, WalMart and Amazon have halted sales of the popular banner. Politicians including the governor of South Carolina — where the first shots of the Civil War were fired — have called for the flag’s removal from the statehouse grounds, and a vote on the issue is pending. Other jurisdictions across the country are also moving to diminish the flag’s visibility.
Signs of the tensions surfaced this weekend in Gettysburg, where each year the anniversary brings thousands of tourists who watch or join reenactments of the ferocious battle that led to over 51,000 casualties in three days and was the subject of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech. This year the National Park Service has asked vendors to remove items that feature the flag and have little historical value, such as belt buckles. But some of the town’s memorabilia sellers — especially in stores along a strip of street dedicated to visitors — appeared to have doubled down on their commitment to the flag, displaying it prominently as anniversary events kicked off.
"Keep It Flying!" read a sign affixed to one battle flag, hung from a souvenir dealer's porch.
Members of Gettysburg’s black community, which makes up about 5.8 percent of the town’s population of 7,600, are used to seeing Confederate flag imagery, even in a Northern town that was the site of an important Southern defeat. The banner adorns everything from T-shirts and stickers to shot glasses, coffee mugs and flagpoles. But some said that the flag itself was not the issue.
“At least they’re being honest when they show the flag. At least I know where they stand,” said one resident, an African-American man who would only identify himself as Joe. “The flag is just a scapegoat.”
Victor Ortiz, another black resident who was out relaxing with Joe and a group of other friends on an Independence Day weekend evening on Breckenridge Street in Gettysburg’s predominately black Third Ward, said the Confederate battle flag has no place on public buildings because it represents a government and army that no longer exist.
“We don’t fly American and British flags. We fly American and state flags. So you’re flying American and Confederate flags for what? You lost,” said Ortiz, 31, who works in shoe factory. “It shouldn’t be on public buildings. But on houses, so what? You're just showing your point of view. It’s ignorance.”
Others in the group of friends took a tougher stance.
Sandy Smith, a 35-year-old student, contended that the Confederate flag can be a tool that incites violence. Roof, the alleged Charleston church shooter, “killed people because of that flag,” she said. “He used the flag. He was representing the flag. People who use it in a wrong way should not be allowed to have the flag.”
Cyrus Scott, 28, another neighbor, said he supports banning the Confederate battle flag from public spaces — even cars.
“If we drive around with tinted windows or playing music loud, then we get pulled over,” Scott said. “How about making it law that if you have the Confederate flag, you get pulled over?”
Public affairs officials at the Gettysburg Police Department were not immediately available for comment on the issue.
Gettysburg’s name is inextricably linked to the Civil War and U.S. history, and its battle reenactments — the lifeblood of the town’s crucial tourism sector — are hard to carry out without displaying the flag. But at least one group is doing so. The Lutheran Seminary, a theological center that runs a reenactment on Seminary Ridge, a major point in the battle, has banned the display of the flag from its reenactment this year.
“We are forced by more recent history and current events to declare a total ban on display of confederate symbols and flags used by supremacist organizations, and that unfortunately includes the Confederate Navy Jack (another name for the battle flag) and the St. Andrew cross in two of the official flags of the Confederacy," said John Spangler, a spokesman for the seminary, in a statement posted on the organization’s website.
Despite such signs of apparently growing momentum to cut public exposure to a Confederate symbol, some in Gettysburg warned that simply removing the flag is not enough to confront the racism that remains in this town and across the U.S.
“The Confederacy lost the war, but they won the cultural war in the decades after," said Scott Hancock, an African-American professor of U.S. history at Gettysburg College.
Hancock said Gettysburg’s reenactments, for example, have “racially sanitized” history and ignored the real reason for the Civil War: slavery.
“I ask my students who won the Civil War,” Hancock said. “The students say the Union won. Yes, on the battlefield. But in terms of the hearts and minds of America, the Confederacy won.”