A Confederate flag produces a conversation of hope
The Confederate flag appeared last fall, displayed by a homeowner on a busy Boxborough street. It unnerved residents working to foster race relations in the affluent, overwhelmingly white community west of Boston.
After considerable discussion, the neighbors mailed a handwritten note to the homeowner, expressing curiosity about the flag’s meaning and requesting a meeting to talk about it.
What followed opened a window onto the meaning of symbols, the nature of neighborliness, and life in an era of protest and discontent.
Emblems of hate long associated with painful chapters in history, most visibly the Confederate flag and the Swastika, appear to have made a resurgence over the past year, much as authorities tracked a spate of bias incidents during the fractious presidential campaign and in the months since Donald Trump’s election.
“It is not surprising that we are seeing an increase in the posting and distribution of such symbols,” said Deborah Eicher-Catt, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University. “It speaks to their power to signify an ideology that is gaining popularity across the country.”
Members of the grass roots Boxborough organization said they have seen more Confederate flags in the region, often as bumper stickers on pickup trucks. That’s why their first community event Tuesday — a panel discussion, “What does the Confederate flag mean to you?” — will include insights from their encounter with their Confederate flag-flying neighbor.
“We wanted to share this as a model for others to use for what can be a very difficult conversation,” said Alexis Ladd, a co-founder of the Boxborough organization, Fostering Racial Justice Group.
When the neighbor didn’t answer their letter, two members of the group knocked on the man’s door one Sunday afternoon in October. They expected loud, angry words, maybe a door slamming shut. Instead, the mild-mannered man, a truck driver, was polite, but said he didn’t feel like talking.
“He was completely calm, and that was huge, especially in this era when people tend to talk in all caps, all the time,” said the Rev. Cindy Worthington-Berry, pastor of the United Church of Christ in Boxborough and one of the two who knocked on the neighbor’s door.
Worthington-Berry, an ardent Red Sox fan — her golden retriever is named Fenway — noticed a Red Sox flag flying in the man’s yard.
“We started talking about Red Sox vs. Yankees, and people’s tendency to create controversy,” she said.
For the next 45 minutes, the three chatted on the man’s doorstep, in the rain. The man never invited them in, but talked about his childhood playing hockey in the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, his right to fly the Confederate flag, and his belief that it represented his Southern relatives, notably his mother, who had recently retired to Florida, said Steve Ballard, a Boxborough resident who grew up in the South and who joined Worthington-Berry that Sunday.
They told the man the flag represented a symbol of racism to them, noting its roots in Southern states that fought to preserve slavery during the Civil War. Then, the man said something that confused his visitors. He said, “People always have their hands out, and they want something for free, and the rest of us work to pay taxes,” Ballard said.
The man didn’t explain how that related to the Confederate flag. The three chatted some more, but when it became clear further discussion would not bring answers or resolutions, Ballard said they thanked the man for his time and ended the conversation, stunned it had been so civil.
A week or so later, the Confederate flag was gone. The Boxborough group isn’t sure whether the conversation prompted its removal, or whether it was a coincidence. But they wrote the man a thank you note, leaving it on his doorstep with homemade bread. The man, who declined through an intermediary to speak with the Globe, has not flown the flag since.
Historians trace the Confederate flag’s emergence as a modern symbol of racism to groups battling the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. More recently, debate has raged about the flag’s display on public property, after the release of photographs showing a Confederate flag-waving Dylann Roof, the man convicted of killing nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015.
Now, teachers say they are encountering students who believe the Confederate flag is a sign of rebellion, apparently unaware of its link to slavery and racism.
“To teach the Confederate flag, you need to know its long history from the Civil War to civil rights,” said Kevin Levin, a former teacher, historian, and author who lives in Boston. Levin said he hears from teachers who say they feel thwarted by cautious administrators when they want to include lessons about the flag’s more recent history.
“These are not easy questions,” Levin said.
Carlos Hoyt found that to be the case when he encountered a Confederate flag flying from a house last year in his diverse Arlington neighborhood.
Hoyt, an assistant professor of social work at Wheelock College in Boston, agonized about what to do. Draft a letter? Knock on the door? Alert the media? Doing nothing, he said, was not an option.
His family, worried about his safety, urged him not to contact the homeowner in person.
“It was not that far removed from the endless spate of black men being killed for foolish reasons,” said Hoyt, who is black.
So he wrote a letter that explained his distress upon seeing the flag flying near his home, and asked if the neighbor would be willing to chat.
Six weeks later, there was no response. Hoyt, worried the letter got lost in the mail, tried again. This time, he delivered a letter to the doorstep of the house. The letter was tucked in a potted plant, with a small American flag.
“I’m not demanding anything, and I don’t want to try to convince you that I’m RIGHT,” Hoyt wrote. “This is a request — not a demand, not an argument.”
Still, no word from the neighbor. The flag remained until it was replaced by Halloween decorations, and then Christmas ornaments. It has not reappeared.
Hoyt doesn’t know why the neighbor displayed the flag, whether his letter persuaded the neighbor to remove it, or even if the person still lives there — “an unsatisfying set of mysteries,” he said.
The professor said he tries to make constructive use of the unsettling experience by sharing the story with his students, asking them what they would do.
“I tell my students that the fact that I don’t know whether or not I succeeded is not the point,” he said. “What’s important is that we find ways to thoughtfully, civilly, and bravely confront issues that pose threats to human rights and social justice at micro, mezzo, and macro levels.”