WHAT IS A LARGE CONFEDERATE FLAG DISPLAY DOING IN A PHILLY NEIGHBORHOOD?
Written by Charles Ellison on March 3, 2020
There are a lot of things many native Philadelphians, because of their rabid sports team loyalties, won’t tolerate seeing in their city. From people wearing Dallas Cowboys and Washington “Deadskins” jerseys, or maybe flaunting Boston Celtics gear, there are a number of unofficial refractions that will get you at best a Philly side-eye or, at worst, trash talk that occasionally gets violent. In some cases, folks still getting jumped, even players for Philly pro-sports teams, for wearing rival gear. Because Philadelphians, by our nature, can be very provincial, rudely local folk who proudly rep home teams hard.
Which is one reason why it’s both a little surprising and downright disturbing that a window-size Confederate flag decal has, for so long, been emblazoned on the side of a Port Richmond townhouse in plain open view. Clearly, that’s not a home team – in fact, at one point over 150 years ago, it was about to invade Philly (thank goodness Gettysburg put a stop to that). Yet, apparently, no one in Philly has had enough of a visceral reaction to that the same way drunk white guys do to rival sports swag.
On (ironically enough) President’s Day last month, a WURD listener noticed the odd and offensive placement of that very anti-American symbol some time ago at 2525 E. Thompson Street, the end of a line of one-car garage townhomes tucked neatly near the larger Aramingo Avenue. You can see it for yourself right here in a Redfin listing in photo caption #2 (which is astonishing in and of itself). Astonished by the size and boldness of the white supremacist emblem, the listener naturally reached out to her local elected official, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. Problem, however, is that’s not Johnson’s district; rightfully so, Johnson was immediately upset by it and promised follow up with whomever the colleague is. But – and no fault on Johnson – he forgot about the request since it’s not his district …. and, well, he’s been pretty tied up. That prompted some prodding on Twitter by that listener, which led to Johnson’s communications chief and former WURD news director Vincent Thompson relaying it to the correct Councilmember Mark Squilla.
Squilla personally responded and escalated it, notifying his staff, Council President Darrell Clarke’s staff and Mural Arts program director. “I reached out to Jane Golden from Mural arts who is going to inspect the mural at 2525 E. Thompson street and let us know what we can do to resolve this concern. Thank you for providing this information,” said Squilla in the initial missive copying everyone. And he condemned it in a follow-up: “We think that if it is a sticker it may be removed because it defaced the mural. I do not condone any form of hatred no matter how small or what form it takes.”
Still, since it’s on private property, that could present problems depending on the disposition of the owner. “If it is a flag painted on the mural we would have to ask the property owner’s permission before we remove or paint over the symbol.”
To date, all we know Jane is on it. However, Jane’s efforts to reach the owner have been unsuccessful thus far. So, we thought we’d try this column to nudge everyone a bit: yo, owner of 2525 E. Thompson Street. Are you there? Can you let Mural Arts remove or paint over that anti-American abomination on the side of your house? Maybe have them paint an Octavius Catto or Black Union troop mural there, instead.
This is so much more, however, than just the Twitter-exploding melee over whether the owners will allow Mural Arts to paint over it. Going down that rabbit hole then gets into the drama of who owns the home and their story and personally – and I can say this for a lot of other folks – I really don’t want to hear that story. I’m not interested in something that could possibly turn into a New York Times normalization of average middle class white nationalist sympathizers who just want to be left alone to think what they want to think. I’m not looking for a kumbaya moment. People living in a Northern and once proudly Union troop stronghold like Philly should just know better. The whole point is to keep the exercise simple: erase the flag, make a teachable moment out of that while we do.
If we were in Germany, now 75 years away from the end of a devastating World War II (half the time we, supposedly, ended the American Civil War), showing Confederate flags or even allowing “alt-right” idiots to wave and congregate around it would be illegal. Maybe we should take a pro-tip from the Germans. Not only do most German citizens know that the flag of the Third Reich is not something to casually display in German public, they passed what’s called a “Volksverhetzung” — or “incitement of the masses,” a law expressly forbidding “hate speech” and even a law that criminalizes denial of the Holocaust. So, unlike America’s nasty and racist embrace of Confederate flags and statues (to the point where folks even indoctrinated snot-nosed boys into believing the Dukes of Hazard “General Lee” car was an acceptable pop culture thing in the 1980s since, well, Daisy Duke was good with it), you won’t see statues of Hitler, Joe Goebbels or Heinrich Himmler along the boulevard or nazi flags draping houses or museums or as bumper stickers on cars. You’ll find Third Reich imagery in a museum, where they belong as a reminder of nazi brutality, but everywhere else it’s just forbidden.
You could make the argument that this Confederate flag display is actually a crime under Philly’s ordinance prohibiting “bias incidents.” As City Hall states: “A bias incident is an act that is motivated by prejudice but is not a crime (e.g. being called a derogatory name or seeing someone holding a sign with a racist message). While bias incidents are not criminal, they are offensive and may be discriminatory acts that are protected by law (e.g. not providing equal service to people of a specific cultural community).” What’s the hold-up then? Isn’t the flag of the racist insurgency from 150 years ago “a sign with a racist message”?
It may have a lot to do with general American lethargy around the topic. In America, after nearly 800,000 deaths in the Civil War and nearly 5,000 people (that we know of) were lynched by white supremacist terrorists, we’re just all good with it. Here, it’s either not a big deal or we debate over the “free speech dimensions.” Here, we allow over 1,700 Confederate monuments to remain throughout the United States (we’ve only removed just 110), including schools, whole counties and cities, military bases, and more than several in places up North such as Maine, Massachusetts, New York … and, yes, even Pennsylvania.
In fact, our U.S. House of Representatives – after 150 years of this mess – just got around yesterday to finally passing an anti-lynching bill … that was introduced back in 1900.
We have to ask: how did an image like that, in a town like Philadelphia, last for so long without any challenge? Questions linger on whether the owner actually knows or realizes what that is, and whether the neighbors do, too. It’s unclear. But what is clear is that it’s high sacrilege to have a symbol of the Confederacy mounted so prominently in the city where the Union was created.
We’re aware of Port Richmond’s visibly white demographics. And, sure, there will be a lot of white people grumbling under their breath about “oh, here they go again, it’s just flags and statues!” Since their ancestors and kin weren’t enslaved and traumatized over 400 years, they’re not feeling it. Plus, we’ve already had the conversation about America’s bad Black History deficit – we’re so caught up in the feel-good aspect of individual Black achievements, that many of us forget that there was slavery, there’s been several hundred years of systematic oppression and this very horrific Civil War triggered by a nation’s insane moral dilemma over Black humanity.
But, for all those “patriots” out there who love waving American flags on July 4th like it’s their birthday, the Confederate flag is not just a symbol. It’s the ultimate defecation on everything that’s American: it’s as anti-American and anti-patriot as you can get. White Philadelphians who don’t care about Black feelings should be moved by that aspect of it, especially if the struggle over Black humanity isn’t tugging their emotional strings. That’s why it’s important for everyone – not just Black people – to reject and condemn it. It never was a representation of “Southern heritage”: It’s an official representation of treason against the United States, a terroristic, anti-democratic, pro-slavery insurgency of enemy combatants as defined by Article 3 in the Constitution – a document birthed in Philadelphia. It’s the same thing as having an image or painting of the Islamic State flag or the al Qaeda flag on that wall – and, we’re pretty sure lots of folks would get immediately uptight and violent about that.
Neither is this a First Amendment issue. Part of the problem is that we risk casually dismissing a flag that represented an armed insurgency against the government of the United States as simply “free speech” or “Southern heritage.” That leads to folks getting away with displaying it – plus: it was used widely, and still is used to incite violence and to intimidate certain groups (see: Charlottesville). Free speech can’t incite violence; plus, Confederate soldiers fighting under that flag were enemy combatants and traitors. The only reason they were able to still hold on to these symbols is because the legitimate federal government wanted the war to end and needed a compromise. It was the battle flag for armed, pro-slavery, racists insurgents who then regrouped during Reconstruction to use that same flag to promote the Ku Klux Klan which even the Congress officially designated as a “domestic terrorist” group by passing the Klan Act of 1871.
Really, it has no place anywhere, even on a pick-up truck just below the gun rack, because its purpose was the complete destruction of these United States. So, Philadelphia is the last place to find something like that, so out in the open and so peacefully adorning a massive brick wall. Philadelphia sent close to 100,000 troops into war to bolster the Union effort, including 50 regiments and 11 organized “Colored” (the term used at that time) regiments. Indeed, the city just erected one of the historic organizers of those regiments: Octavius Catto. More than 700,000 Americans died during that horrific war. Perhaps it’s time we revisit that historian because, obviously, some Philadelphians like the owner of that house and the developer who sold it, seem to have totally forgot. That’s not so surprising, sadly: 34 percent of Americans, according to a 2020 YouGov poll, still think the Confederate flag is about heritage and not the racism and treason that it was.
Erasing or painting over it (a rather simple process, one would think) is not only important for the city’s substantial Black population, but it is equally important to Whites and every other demographic in Philadelphia. This is crucial history we are still grappling with as a nation, and what it represents is, in large part, directly responsible for much of the polarization and division we’re all encountering this very day. Hopefully, the Mural Arts program can get to the business of eliminating it. We could all use this as a teachable moment about what’s supposed to make us all uniquely American and democratic during a time when we could all use that, especially in the place where it all started. So, let’s see if we can be better than that.