ELDERSBURG — Flag day meant a special celebration for Jay Barringer as a child. His parents would humor him as he decorated his front lawn with flags for all of his neighbors in Bahama, North Carolina, to see.
The tradition for Barringer lives on. But now, his collection includes several controversial flags.
The 51-year-old, who has lived in Eldersburg, Maryland, for almost 30 years, rotates his growing collection of flags on two flag poles that hang from his front porch.
Sometimes, he celebrates his neighbor from Taiwan with a Taiwanese flag, or the veteran who lives nearby with a Marine Corps flag. Other days, he coordinates the flags with important days in history.
On a recent Monday in October, an American flag and the third and last national flag of the Confederacy frame his front porch.
But while the commander of the Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans flies his flags freely at home, the flag displayed on his license plate will be banned beginning this Tuesday.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh announced in mid-October that all Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates featuring the Confederate flag will be recalled per a federal judge’s ruling in October.
The recall makes Maryland the third state to ban the license plates. Texas was the first state to ban them, in June, followed by Virginia in August.
The wording featuring the organization’s name on the license plates will stay the same, but the new law requires owners of the plates to trade them in for new ones, without Confederate flags, at no cost. The Maryland Motor Vehicles Administration will notify owners about the recall via letters, giving them 30 days to replace their tags before a tag order and repossession fee is enforced.
Buel Young, public information officer for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, said a total of 173 Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates exist within the state.
“This flag is a painful symbol that divides us, conjuring images of hate and subjugation,” Frosh said in a statement on Oct. 15. “It has no place in any contemporary government use.”
Barringer, who owns three sets of the license plates and several Confederate flags, said it impedes on his and the Sons of Confederate Veterans members’ right to commemorate their history.
“This is an affront to our history and honorable men in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the soldiers, sailors and marines who served,” said Barringer, noting that the two Confederate admirals were both Marylanders. “We have a heritage and history, too, like all of us do, and we should be able to commemorate our history just like anyone else.”
Barringer works in database administration, has the slight drawl of a southern gentleman (with the manners and wardrobe to match), and hails from a family of tobacco farmers.
He first became interested in his heritage after seeing an editorial about the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which requires members to be related to a member of the Confederate army in the Civil War. He wondered whether his family had a connection.
Barringer joined the group, which celebrates the Confederate ancestry with events and color guards, after finding he was related to Rufus Clay Barringer, a Confederate brigadier.
He also found a distant cousin who served in the North Carolina infantry before he was fatally injured in 1864 at just 18 years old.
His cousin, he said, worked on a tobacco farm before going to the war and was not a slave owner, contrary to many people’s beliefs about Confederate soldiers.
He was the kind of soldier that made up the bulk of the Confederate Army, said Barringer.
“I’m not going to say slavery didn’t have anything to do with that war. The war was a complex issue. Slavery was an issue,” Barringer said.
But it wasn’t the only issue, he said, and removing statues, flags and license plates does not remove what happened in the past.
“History has got warts. You learn from it,” said Barringer, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for the past 13 years. “You don’t erase it.”
Chris Haley, Maryland State Archives' director of the study of the legacy of slavery in Maryland, agreed.
Like Barringer, Haley looked into his genealogy to find he is related to a Confederate veteran.
His great-great-great-grandfather John W. Fulcher was a Confederate colonel from Georgia. Another great-grandfather twice removed was a slave.
“From a historical point of view, (the flag) should not be dissolved. It should not be eradicated or ripped apart because historically it’s a point of our history that should be discussed,” said Haley.
But from his personal point of view as a black man, Haley said the flag makes him uneasy.
“I never feel comfortable seeing the Confederate flag displayed on someone’s truck or in someone’s front yard,” Haley said.
While he doesn’t ascribe the flag to a symbol of hate, Haley said, the flag was once used during the Civil War to distinguish the Confederate troops from those in the Union Army. It was a time of rebellion, Haley said, where the South wanted to divide itself from the rest of the country and also protect the lucrative movement that was slavery.
Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference NAACP, said the Confederate flag is painful for many African Americans to see.
The license plate recall should have happened a long time ago, he said.
“Because of what the flag has been used for, it’s enough to have [the license plates] phased out. There are other ways to commemorate the history of people that fought in those wars,” said Stansbury. “I appreciate what [the] Maryland [government] has done.”
The flag’s reputation
Barringer, who owns several Confederate flags, said he has never had any problems with neighbors and passersby who see his flags or license plates, but this November, he will turn in his plates regardless.
He blames recent scrutiny surrounding Confederate monuments and flags on the shooting that happened at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this past June, leaving nine black parishioners dead.
Photographs of suspect Dylann Roof with the Confederate battle flag surfaced shortly after the shooting, along with a manifesto revealing Roof’s goal to start a race war.
Barringer said as a Christian, he was horrified.
“The whole organization was sickened. (Roof) is just the type of filth and malevolent individual who doesn’t understand the symbol at all,” Barringer said.
Barringer, who expressed concern for the families, said he also feared that Roof’s actions would be affiliated with the flag and his organization, once again giving it a bad reputation.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans "don’t tolerate racism and bigotry,” said Barringer, who holds the highest position in the Maryland division of the organization, where he oversees membership and communications.
“Too many people are buying into organizations that inappropriately represent that flag, like the [Ku Klux] Klan and the neo-Nazis — malevolent organizations that are truly racist,” he said.
In the business of Confederate flags
In July, shortly after the shooting in Charleston, Gov. Nikki Haley signed a law to remove a Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds.
Ryan Wyatt, owner of family business CRW Flags in Glen Burnie, Maryland, said there was a surge in demand in Maryland for Confederate flags following Gov. Haley’s decision.
“We noticed everybody under the sun was getting [flags],” said Wyatt, 55, who likened the sudden increase in demand comparable to the demand for American flags after 9/11.
Most of Wyatt’s new customers had never owned a flag before, Wyatt said. They just wanted the flag as a piece of history.
“We’d ask how they were going to display them, and they would say ‘Well I don’t want to fly it, but nobody’s going to tell me I can’t’,” Wyatt said.
Seventy-seven-year-old veteran and former teacher R. Shelby Clendaniel of Cambridge, Maryland, had never owned a Confederate flag before this year, but just months ago, he bought a Confederate bumper sticker and stuck it on the bottom-right bumper of his pick-up truck.
In a conversation in Annapolis on the morning of Nov. 4, Clendaniel called the sticker “a knee-jerk reaction to a reaction,” a defense of his freedom of expression
“The flag does not carry that emotional symbol of hate,” Clendaniel said. “It is within a person’s mind.”
Hours later, the Confederate flag sticker on the back of Clendaniel’s truck was gone.