The Confederate flag? My personal story

Here is another story from a flag merchant who has reconsidered the Confederate flag.  Originally posted on Peter Orenski’s TMEALF mailing list.

The Confederate flag? My personal story, not great, but clear enough.

by Lee L Herold, 27 June 2015

In 1967 I was fresh out of college, waiting for active duty in the US Navy during the Vietnam War. I worked that summer for my brother Ken in blacktop construction. I also worked doing taxes returns in the winter (when asphalt construction stops due to the intense cold & snow).  I lived in Rochester, Minnesota, a “northern” city of about 25,000. Surveys about that time listed Rochester as the “whitest” city in the country for its’ size.

How northern is Minnesota? After the guns at Fort Sumter South Carolina, Minnesota was the first State to volunteer troops to defend the Union. Minnesota troops fought across the country, and performed significant service at the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg. At Gettysburg Minnesota troops played a near suicidal role to save the right flank of the Union forces and suffered the highest casualty rate of any units during the war.

So, in 1966 Ken (see above) hired a black salesman, Joe Shepard. Joe was the first black I had ever actually met and talked to. He was of a different culture, in the way he dressed, his speech, mannerisms, and outrageously he was a Bai’hai, a quasi-Christian. Amazingly, he was a very good salesman, perhaps for the culture reasons, I don’t know. The crew was not happy. They did not say much, but it was unmistakable when he came around to the jobs they didn’t like it. Fortunately, he was on the road a lot.

In 1967, Ken hired an additional black person as office manager, John Berry. Since I was familiar with bookkeeping and taxes, I already did office work, so I expected to work closely with John. About a week after John was there, the entire crew stormed into the office. Walked in does not cover it, they violently threw open the door, anger and tension radiating out. I backed up, John backed up, Ken who was sitting in front of the desk, right in front of them didn’t move.

They presented an ultimatum: “We won’t take any orders from a Negro!” “Either he goes or we’ll all quit.” That’s all I remember verbatim. The room was so tense I can still feel it. There was a long silence, we all waited for Ken’s response. Ken’s head was down, he was fighting for control. Finally, after what seemed forever, in a hoarse but firm voice he said: “Then I guess you’ll have to quit.” He didn’t look up.

Everyone was stunned, including me. There was a pause, and the crew slowly filed out, without a word.

They did not quit. Not one. And they did take orders from a black person.

Of course I loved my brother, and held him in high respect. But this was raw courage, his business was on the line. Training a new crew just as construction season was beginning, or even finding people would not have been likely. He was shaken, his stomach cramped, but he stood tall.

There is more. Rochester, in north state Minnesota, home of the world famous Mayo Clinic, had patients come from all over the world. Our small town had as many hotels because of the patient load as the 300,000-resident St. Paul. But blacks could only stay in one hotel, the Avalon. Not run down, but definitely a low-class hotel. So when Joe or John had friends come to Rochester to visit, if the hotel was full, they would have to put them up themselves, as no other place would take them. When Joe or John tried to find housing, it was nearly impossible, definitely nothing nice. People were afraid of them or simply refused.

In late 1967 I was called up for active duty in the Navy. I wound up for 6 months in Pensacola, Florida. There for the first time I saw rest rooms for “whites” and “colored”. Drinking fountains were labeled, restaurants, and on and on. I was offended and appalled. And then I saw away from the shiny cities, the slums, people living in tar paper lean-tos. Disgusting.

The Confederate flag was raised in the South to prevent any changes to this system. It was the symbol of defiance, the symbol of suppression, hate, ignorance, death. The South, and even the North, i.e., Rochester, were forced to change.

Yes, I have sold the Confederate flag. It looks grand. But so does the Nazi flag. I have always felt uncomfortable selling the Confederate flag (what would Joe & John have thought, or felt?). But customers are my income.

Now the country is taking the last step, the South is moving on, a new generation is speaking up for equality, fraternity, and liberty for all, for every citizen. So I have stepped up and put the Confederate flag in the same corner as the Nazi flag. Much less courage than Ken showed so many ago, but it is the right thing to do. I have seen too much with my own eyes.

Lastly, why did Joe come from a different culture? He was born in the US, lived all his life in the US, breathed American air, drank American water. Well, it is logical and rational. He and others of darker skin were not permitted to be Americans. They could not live in our culture, eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels, drink from our water fountains, be on our radio and TV programs, except as servants and jesters. Were I treated thus, I would develop my own culture too, my own way of speaking, my own connections. Just as Yiddish and Jewish cultures in Europe developed.

Then because they are “different” they can be rejected, singled out, and the consequences follow.

No, we must put a stop to it. The time is ripe, the iron is hot, and justice is speaking.

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