First one, then another — Rebel flags flying in Pittsboro

Posted 10/4/19

In response to county’s statue decision

‘Born and raised’

PITTSBORO — “That’s where I grew up,” Sam White says, stirring a cup of coffee at his kitchen counter and nodding towards …

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First one, then another — Rebel flags flying in Pittsboro

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Posted

In response to county’s statue decision

‘Born and raised’

PITTSBORO — “That’s where I grew up,” Sam White says, stirring a cup of coffee at his kitchen counter and nodding towards the view through the back window over the sink.

Visible through the window, a couple of hundred yards south, is an old wooden house, surrounded by a thick grove of trees; it’s there that White — native of the very same Chatham County soil — “was born and raised.”

“I love Chatham County,” he says. “Yes sir, I do.”

White’s been rooted here most of his life, except for stints away for college (he has degrees in English and drama from Elon College and he later earned a Master’s in Education degree from the University of Virginia) and work (his first job out of college was coaching basketball at a public school in Virginia.)

He returned home to Chatham County after two years teaching and coaching in Virginia — he built a house on family-owned land off Hank’s Chapel Road, and lived there with his then-wife — and took a job teaching English and drama and coaching basketball at his alma mater, Pittsboro High School, from which he graduated in 1956. He taught at Pittsboro High School for six years and, during that time, moved back to the property where on which he was born and where he lives today.

So he hasn’t lived his entire life here.

“Not yet,” White says with a laugh; meaning, of course, that at age “eighty-one and a half,” and despite bad knees (“I hurt,” says the life-long horseman, who for a few years earned a living as a horse show announcer working shows “from the Gulf Coast of Florida to the Quarter Horse Congress in Columbus, Ohio”), he’s still got some life —and some fight — left in him.

“For somebody that’s stirred up as much controversy as I have over the years,” says White — a self-described “die-hard conservative” — “I really don’t want to bother anybody,” he says. “Charlie Daniels said it best: ‘I don’t want to fight you, but I damn sure will.’”

At the moment, it’s a fight — or at least a dust-up — the Chatham native is engaged in with the Town of Pittsboro.

Two things are at issue: a recently-erected flagpole on White’s property; and the flag flying at its peak. The pole is approximately, according to White, 46 feet high — taller by a foot, at least, than town rules allow — and the flag is larger than the 40 square foot flag dimensions town rules permit.

And, though not a violation of any ordinance, the oblong emblem blowing in the breeze high over White’s property happens to be the controversial Confederate flag.

“In response to citizen complaints,” states a letter sent to White via certified mail from Jeff Jones, the town of Pittsboro’s planning director and zoning enforcement officer, “Town staff have examined the above property in order to whether a violation of the Town’s zoning ordinance was occurring due to the flag recently erected upon your property.”

After Oct. 1, the letter states, White faces a $50 per day fine.

But back to the flag.

‘A direct response’

“The flag,” White says, “is a direct response to the county commissioners’ vote to remove the statue. The flag is to support the monument. The monument is the bigger deal.”

Chatham County commissioners voted 4-1 on August 19 to ask the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization commissioners maintain owns the “Our Confederate Heroes” statue sitting, since 1907 at the historic Chatham County Courthouse, to submit to the county a plan for the statue’s removal.

“It’s been there all my life,” White says of the North-facing metal soldier. “It’s part of my history.”

And, sharing a view with many other Chatham County residents who have voiced objection to the county’s action, White doesn’t believe the Confederate monument — he considers it county property — should be removed.

White said that in both the rebel flag flying at his home and in the statue, whose days appear numbered, he sees the same message: “Pride in Southern heritage,” he says.

“Those people that fought and died under that flag — some of them are my ancestors,” he says.

Not everyone, of course, sees in the Confederate flag that same message.

“They’re going to see what they want to see,” White says. “I see what I want to see. Yes, there are people who say that flag represents the supremacy of people with white skin over people of any other color skin. That’s not me.

“I don’t judge anyone by the color of their skin,” he continues. “This is what really pisses me off about this. If you ask people who know me — who really know Sam White — there’s not a racial bone in my body.”

‘A symbol of hate’

In Sam White’s flag — as in all Confederate flags — former Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller sees not Southern pride but rather something very different.

“It’s a symbol of hate,” Voller says. “It’s a symbol of white supremacy. That’s what it is.”

While Voller supports White’s First Amendment right to free speech, he does not “agree with the flag.”

Voller says he’s familiar with the “heritage not hate” argument cited sometimes by rebel flag proponents, but for Voller the argument is flimsy.

“You can’t scrub it that way,” he says.

“I’m not a proponent of the Third Reich,” says Voller, the son of a German immigrant. “I don’t display those potent symbols. I know what the swastika means.”

White says he’s gotten some backlash from his display, which in addition to the rebel flag includes a couple of small yard signs touting support for the Confederate monument (“Save our monuments,” the sign says. “Preserve our history.”)

“I’ve had people riding by my house throwing condoms and Coke bottles on my property,” he says. “I’ve had rocks thrown at my house.”

But he says he’s also gotten support.

Soon after the flag was raised in late August, White says, “I had three phone calls from people wanting to know who to get in touch with about the flag because they want one.”

And he says he’s received “dozens of phone calls telling me that the flag is beautiful.”

White, however, isn’t alone in feeling an impact from his flag.

Pittsboro real estate agent Michele Hobaugh has, for the past six months, leased the large roadside billboard on view to motorists entering Pittsboro on U.S. 64 from the direction of Raleigh. The billboard is directly in front of White’s flagpole, and until the flag was raised, Hobaugh was happy with the prominent advertisement.

Now, days after she signed an agreement to rent the space another year, the Confederate flag is flying just above the billboard’s image of Hobaugh’s face and phone number.

“I’m very much impacted by that flag,” she says, and not in a way she likes. “It’s an image of hate and non-inclusion, and that’s the antithesis of what I do and stand for.”

A Southerner, too, (she’s from Alamance County, which has had its own recent squabbles over a Confederate monument, and she’s familiar with the arguments flag supporters offer) Hobaugh’s stance is firm: “That flag isn’t about heritage,” she says.

To counter the flag’s message, Hobaugh says she’s planning to sub-lease the billboard’s advertising space to someone planning to display a “more positive” message.

A second flag in Pittsboro, and maybe more

As White spoke about these issues last Thursday afternoon, a few miles across town a second Confederate flag was being erected, on private property off Sanford Road across from Horton Middle School. It was placed there by the same folks who erected the flag on White’s property, according to a Facebook post by a group called the Virginia Flaggers, who share credit for both flags with a group called ACTBAC NC. The Facebook post calls the flag-plantings a “joint effort.”

White is fuzzy on some of the details, saying his memory isn’t as sharp as it once was, but recalling that “one of the flaggers called me.”

White says, “I don’t know who asked me first. Somebody said ‘We’re looking for a place to put up a pole.’ I said ‘Fine.’ I said, ‘Sure, bring it on.’”

White agreed to the placement on his property and helped foot the bill for the pole and the flag.

In their Facebook post following the raising of the rebel flag near Horton, which was the segregated black high school in Pittsboro when White attended the whites-only Pittsboro High School in the Fifties, the Virginia Flaggers say they are “thrilled at the reaction and support from local citizens, who are fed up with the attempts by activist liberals to eradicate local history and disrespect their veterans.”

But not everyone is thrilled.

Soon after the second flag near Horton was raised, protesters — who have not been identified — brought the flag down overnight, though flaggers quickly returned it to position.

Over the weekend, flag supporters kept a vigil at the flag near Horton.

“We have only just begun to fight,” the Virginia Flaggers’ Facebook post continues. “Land is already being cleared for flag site #3.”

A fourth flag is also planned, White said.

As for the statue staying in place, county board chairman Mike Dasher said in a statement released last weekend that the “deal’s gone down and what’s done is done. There is not a discussion or negotiation left to be had, unless you’re the UDC and you want to talk thru the particulars of how/when/where you’re moving [the statue] to.”

Dasher added, “Barring any legal challenge, there is zero chance the Board of Commissioners revisits this issue. Zero.”

To those raising Confederate flags in protest to the county board’s stance on the monument, Dasher said “all you’re doing is hurting local people and businesses, and convincing more and more people that monuments and flags glorifying the confederacy are horribly out of place in 2019 Chatham County.”

‘Can’t run’

White says plans are in place to shorten his flag pole so it complies with Pittsboro’s ordinance; likewise the flag’s dimensions, though he states no timetable for the adjustments and remains defiant about the $50 per day fine the town will charge him after Oct. 1 — the same day, incidentally, of the UDC’s deadline from Chatham’s commissioners to come up with a removal plan for the statue.

“They’ll have to come get it after I’m dead,” he says of any fines the town may assess. “That flag’s going to stay.”

Indeed, the pole is cemented in place on his property, affixed into a 4x4x4 hole — even its cement base bears the rebel flag’s stars and stripes.

“The flag is four feet in the ground,” White says. “It’s buried in solid concrete.”

He maintains he isn’t looking for a fight and “I didn’t want this one.”

But, he adds, he isn’t stepping away.

“Can’t run,” White says. “I got bad knees.”

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at rigsbee@chathamnr.com

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