The number of Confederate monument removals has diminished sharply since the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer that left one young woman dead, but schools across the country remain on the front lines of this divisive debate about the legacy of the Civil War.
Over the past few weeks school districts in Austin, Texas, and Petersburg, Virginia, have chosen to rename buildings that honor Confederate leaders and/or remove Confederate symbolism such as the battle flag on school grounds.
Last week school administrators in Crossville, Tennessee, ordered the modification of a large Confederate battle flag painted on a school’s gymnasium wall and an adjacent mural that required little imagination to be interpreted as a lynching at South Cumberland Elementary School.
Strong evidence that Crossville was once counted among numerous “sundown towns” that stretched across the United States may help to explain why calls to remove the murals were not heeded sooner.
The controversial mural featured a young white male—who appears to be a student wearing a school sports team uniform—carrying a Confederate battle flag while standing over another young white male hanging from a tree by his jersey straps. According to school officials, the mural was intended to represent South Cumberland’s main sports rival, the North Cumberland Patriots. The “Rebels” of South Cumberland are certainly not the only school that has embraced Confederate iconography to bolster school spirit. Other schools as far north as Massachusetts and Vermont have done so as well, but a mural that clearly implies a lynching—and involving a battle flag—is one of the more egregious examples.
Why this scene was tolerated for so long is difficult to understand. In an attempt to defuse the controversy, Jane Franklin, assistant to the Cumberland County Schools director, revealed that the murals have “been there a long time.” She went on to reassure the public that “most people don’t even notice it.” And that is exactly the problem.
No one in the South Cumberland Elementary School community appears to have expressed concern following the publication of photographs of Dylann Roof posing with a Confederate battle flag that surfaced after he murdered nine churchgoers during a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.
Concerns also failed to surface in their community following the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that took place around the Robert E. Lee monument—a rally in which numerous battle flags were clearly visible. Just days after Charlottesville, a large caravan of cars and pickup trucks decorated with Confederate flags paraded through Crossville.
Finally, no one suggested that the school might be sending the wrong message in its embrace of Confederate iconography as members of Stormfront gathered in Crossville shortly thereafter.
Schools like South Cumberland Elementary that continue to embrace the legacy of the Confederacy turn their backs on the role the battle flag played in this country’s long history of racism and white supremacy. They turn their backs on the story of Will Echols, who was forced to kiss a Confederate battle flag before he was murdered by a white lynch mob in Quitman, Mississippi, in 1920. History and social studies departments fail their students by not highlighting the ways in which white Americans embraced the battle flag to defend their schools from integration and other segregationist policies that governed every aspect of life during the Jim Crow era.
The history of segregation and racial violence that defined this period in American history is often ignored or distorted in favor of a more self-congratulatory narrative, but the lynching scene and the embrace of Confederate symbols in Crossville obscures an even more important local story of racial exclusion. Evidence strongly suggests that Crossville was, at one time, one of hundreds of communities in America known as “sundown towns,” places where African Americans were not welcome after dark.
James Loewen, who is a leading authority on the subject, has concluded that between “1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only.” Towns, as well as cities and even counties, passed ordinances barring African Americans from owning or renting property and/or posted sundown signs announcing that African Americans and other minorities were not welcome after working hours. A majority of these “incorporated places” were located outside those Southern states that had long been dominated by the institution of slavery. For example, Loewen contends that at one time Illinois included over 400 sundown towns and that roughly half of all towns in the Ozark and Cumberland regions of the nation as well as the states of Oregon, Indiana, and Ohio were intended to be communities for whites only.
Loewen identifies Crossville as a “probable” sundown town. According to the 1900 census, 572 African Americans lived in the county, but within 10 years the number had been reduced to 91, many having moved to nearby Harriman. That trend continued for the next few decades, leaving only two black residents by 1960. Why the sudden departure is difficult to pin down, but at least one black man was lynched in Crossville’s courthouse square and four blacks were hanged at different times in nearby Pleasant Hill around 1920. The sudden departure of the majority of the community’s black residents following racial violence accords with patterns established elsewhere.
Part of the challenge of acknowledging this story in a place like Crossville is the failure to document what took place. As late as 2002, “residents of Crossville, Tennessee, knew theirs was a sundown county and had had a black population until about 1905,” according to Loewen, “but they had lost any oral tradition to explain exactly how and why their African Americans were forced out.”
Crossville’s connection to the history of sundown towns may help to explain why no one expressed concern about the school’s murals until recently and why those concerns were initially ignored. The long-term impact of suddenly losing most of the community’s black population may have made it easier to view the Confederate battle flag as an innocent symbol of school pride or cross-town rivalry in a region of the state, where tens of thousands of men chose to fight for the United States rather than the Confederacy during the Civil War.
In the days since this story broke both murals have been modified. The large Confederate battle flag has been painted over and replaced with “Dread the Red” in large letters. The jersey straps that gave the appearance of a lynching have been removed and the addition of an explosion cloud under the North Cumberland player’s feet add more of a cartoonish element to the scene. The mural’s Confederate battle flag was also changed to read “SCE.”
At a time when Confederate symbolism is once again being publicly embraced to support white supremacist views in the United States, painting over the school’s murals and suggesting that the issue has been resolved not only misses a significant teaching moment but is a disservice to the students. They deserve to understand why these symbols are controversial through a close study of their history and in reference to more recent events on the racial front. More importantly, Crossville’s students deserve to understand how the history of their own community may have contributed to the embrace of these symbols and why they were tolerated for so long.