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Why the Confederate flag is still in a box

Confederate Flag taken down a year ago still in storage

Allen Roberson, director at S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, talks about the Confederate Flag that was taken down from the S.C. State House a year ago. The flag is being stored at the museum until the Legislature decides the best w
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Allen Roberson, director at S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, talks about the Confederate Flag that was taken down from the S.C. State House a year ago. The flag is being stored at the museum until the Legislature decides the best w

The last Confederate battle flag to fly at the S.C. State House sits today in storage at Columbia’s S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

That is not the honorable display that flag advocates were promised last summer as lawmakers heatedly debated furling the flag in the wake of the slaying of nine African-American parishioners at a Charleston church.

Ultimately, legislators voted to remove the flag from the State House grounds and display it at the Relic Room, a little attended museum located off Columbia’s Gervais Street. The details and cost of that display, they said, would be worked out when they returned to Columbia in January.

But lawmakers left Columbia this year without ever acting on the flag, largely forgotten.

Deciding the flag’s future display next year will require several decisions – including the cost, its location and how to display it.

Some want the flag and the Relic Room moved to Charleston, a proposal that some African-American lawmakers from the Midlands might welcome. But does Charleston – the birthplace of the Civil War but also the home of the Emanuel AME Church massacre – want the flag?

How the flag will be displayed also is undecided.

A state House Democrat warns there will be opposition to flying the flag again if that’s proposed as part of that display.

Earlier this year, a proposal emerged to spend $3.6 million to enlarge and renovate parts of the Relic Room to include a flag display, but legislators did not consider that plan. Instead, lawmakers approved studying moving the Relic Room to Charleston. But Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed that plan, saying moving the museum never was discussed as part of the deal to furl the flag.

“It’s not that much of a surprise to me at all that it’s still in storage,” said Relic Room director Allen Roberson, citing other more-pressing legislative priorities this year, including paying for road repairs. He also said it could take time to get an appropriate display correct.

Lawmakers hope to decide how to display the flag as soon as next year.

“We’re going to resolve it, and it’s going to be handled in a way I think the vast majority of South Carolinians would feel comfortable with,” said state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, a central figure in the House vote last year that brought the flag down.

Promises made

On July 10, 2015, S.C. troopers handed the furled flag to museum director Roberson after bringing the banner down in front of a crowd of thousands.

Roberson, who was then to carry the flag off the grounds, remembers he focused on not tripping. He also said his wife, who attended the event with his children, was concerned for his safety.

“She was worried that somebody could be up in a building ... and I could get shot.”

She was worried that somebody could be up in a building ... and I could get shot.

Confederate Relic Room director Allen Roberson

After the ceremony, Roberson and another museum staffer climbed into an armored police car and delivered the controversial flag to the Relic Room, several blocks away.

Roberson transferred the 100 percent nylon flag to an acid-free textile box lined with acid-free paper, an environment designed to ensure the banner, which cost $52, did not deteriorate.

A year later, the flag remains in that box.

Even though they had more than $1 billion in new money to spend this year, legislators decided not to spend any money on the flag. Instead, they spent that money on other priorities, including about $200 million in added money on road repairs and more than $300 million in additional funding for S.C. schools.

Part of the reluctance to address the flag issue again was cost.

The first proposal given legislators – calling for expanding the Relic Room and renovating parts of the museum to display the flag – came with an estimated price tag of $5.3 million. After some lawmakers balked at that cost, a second proposal came in at $3.6 million.

Lawmakers recoiled in “a little bit of sticker shock” at those price tags, Quinn said.

But, the Lexington Republican added, “There were promises made (during the House flag debate) to deal with it in an honorable way.”

And, Quinn added, those promises – that the flag would be honored appropriately at another location – were important to some legislators, who see the flag as a symbol of heritage. The promises convinced flag supporters in the House to vote to remove the flag, Quinn said.

There were promises made (during the House flag debate) to deal with it in an honorable way.

State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington

Move the Relic Room to Charleston?

What time legislators spent on the flag issue this year centered on a proposal by state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, to study moving the Relic Room to Charleston.

In Columbia, the Relic Room draws few visitors – only 24,700 last year, about one-third of them children who enter the museum for free.

That compares to the State Museum’s approximately 181,000 visitors.

Ticket sales for the Relic Room generated about $100,000 of the military museum’s $826,000 budget last year. Taxpayers picked up the rest.

24,700 Annual visitors to the Relic Room

181,000 Annual visitors to the State Museum

In Charleston, which draws more tourists, the museum would attract more admission-paying visitors, Limehouse said.

Ultimately, legislators approved Limehouse’s study as part of the state budget, deferring any action on displaying the flag.

However, Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed that budget proposal, saying it was important to legislators, who she worked with to bring down the flag, “to develop a proper, respectful place for” the banner at the current Relic Room location.

“Never in any of those conversations … did they talk about moving it to Charleston,” Haley said last month. The proposal arose because a couple of legislators or former legislators want the museum moved to Charleston, she said. “We talked about Columbia – never did we talk about Charleston – and I have to stay true to my word on that.”

House members sustained the governor’s veto.

Even though Limehouse, who retired from the S.C. House this year, pushed to look at the move, not all in Charleston would welcome the flag.

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said it would send the wrong message to relocate the flag to the city where the shooting took place.

“This city has been through tremendous tragedy,” Kimpson said. “It is time to close the chapter on allowing that symbol to polarize this state.”

There has not been a discussion at all in the Senate about displaying the flag, Kimpson said. “People are ready, quite frankly to move on.”

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said he would be absolutely against moving the flag and Relic Room to Charleston.

There is “no sense in opening old wounds,” he said, especially because of what the community has been through during the past 18 months.

State Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, also opposes moving the Relic Room.

“That’s just not going to happen,” Courson said. It and the State Museum, both housed in the same building, feed off each other for attendance, he said.

The military museum is an important archive of the state’s history, said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland. “I’m for keeping the Relic Room in Columbia.”

However, others wouldn’t mind if the Relic Room – and the flag – went somewhere else.

“(It) wouldn’t hurt my feelings, as someone who lives in Columbia, to have it be out of Columbia,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland. “I wouldn’t feel either joyful or sad if it moved.”

Jackson noted Charleston is where the Civil War began.

But others say the Relic Room – which chronicles the state’s entire military history, not just the Civil War – has important ties to the Midlands.

While its military collection has a statewide focus, the Relic Room has a big Midlands component, including flags from most of the Civil War companies formed around Lexington, Saluda and Edgefield, museum director Roberson said.

“We have a purpose here,” he said.

Resolution next year?

Jackson said he has been involved with Confederate flag discussions since he was a freshman senator.

After last year’s emotional debate, Jackson said there was not much appetite this year to debate again where the flag should go. “It was not a conversation.”

However, Courson expects lawmakers to decide on a flag display when they return to Columbia in January. He also wants displayed the flag that flew on the State House dome until 2000, when the banner was moved to the Confederate monument on the grounds.

But Smith said there will be opposition to any proposal that would involve flying –as opposed to displaying — the Confederate flag.

The division the symbol causes and its historic meaning are both reasons the flag should be displayed, not flown, in a museum, Richland Rep. Smith said.

Flying the Confederate flag by a government entity would violate the terms of surrender by the Confederate soldiers, Smith said.

If people want to fly the Confederate flag on their own lawns and homes, that’s one thing, Smith said. But that is different from the state and government entities flying the flag.

Smith quoted a speech by Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton: “When you furled it forever you pledged your soldierly honor to observe inviolate the terms on which you surrendered.”

It offends the service of Confederate soldiers when people continue to fly the flag because its meaning gets misused and abducted by other organizations, Smith said.

“To place it in the context of history is to put it in a case in a museum, not flying it,” Smith said.

The Relic Room issued a news release earlier this month saying the museum currently does not have the space or funding to construct a separate, permanent display for the flag. The release also noted the museum is due for re-accreditation next year. “We want to make sure the final State House battle flag exhibit is done as expediently, professionally, and accurately as possible.”

Smith wants to see resolution to displaying the flag next year.

“I don’t see any reason to not move forward on what would be an appropriate display of a historic artifact.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope