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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: The representation of symbols in the collective mind

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What, exactly, is it that captures the collective imagination of the residents of our state and makes us see ourselves as a group together, for better or worse?

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“Do you know who Silent Sam is?” Jock queried. He was reading the headlines in the paper right after the toppling of the statue at UNC Chapel Hill.

SYMBOLS OF INDEPENDENCE: Gwenyfar dissects the history behind our state and country flags and their representations in our collective mind. Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

SYMBOLS OF INDEPENDENCE: Gwenyfar dissects the history behind our state and country flags and their representations in our collective mind. Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

“Yes, he’s a statue at UNC representing the soldiers serving the Confederacy and attending the school. But there are numerous statues like him throughout the South.”

I pointed toward the Cape Fear River.

“Unlike the statue of George Davis at Third and Market, Silent Sam is not for a specific person but rather for a group of people or an idea. There are a lot of them and corresponding ones in the North for the Union soldiers. Many were made by the same monument companies and erected around the turn of the century.”

They are called the Silent Sentinels. Marc Fisher wrote a fascinating piece in the Washington Post in August 2017 about the monument companies in New England that sold the same statues all over the country—changing the belt buckle on the statues from “C.S.” for Confederate States to “U.S.” for United States. Otherwise, the collection of silent soldiers look the same. For a war that famously set “brother against brother,” it actually could be an interesting artistic choice, but in reality it’s more driven by economics. Fisher’s observations on the topic were so biting they were hard to forget in the wake of the Charlottesville and Durham confederate monument take-downs; they really stuck with me:

“To the Monumental Bronze Co. in Bridgeport, Conn., it was all just business. Union or Confederate, a customer was a customer, another $450 for a zinc statue that could mean whatever you needed it to mean. It was a business model that could appeal to President Trump—a highly profitable product that could dress up a drab little town and make many Americans feel great again.”


All of this has got me thinking about the state symbols of North Carolina. Ever since Bree Newsome pulled the Confederate Battle flag from the top of the South Carolina capitol I have been ruminating on symbols and ones that capture public imagination.

Flags are of pretty easy for people to attach themselves to. I was in Folks for coffee one morning shortly after Ms. Newsome’s climb and a fellow patron was relating an exchange he had about Confederate flags. Apparently, a friend of his considered Confederate symbols on the NC flag perfectly fine. Immediately, a friend and I piped up to correct the dates on our state flag; they were not for the Confederacy but the American Revolution.

“That’s the Halifax Resolves and the Mecklenburg!” I burbled.

When I get excited, complete sentences tend to flee as all the information topples over each other in an effort to escape my brain. For geeky people like me, opportunities to wax poetic on topics I have stored up over the years is quite exciting. Unfortunately, I am never as eloquent as I imagine.

So the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, whose validity is debatable (dates, record-keeping, messengers, transfer of information, all being a little more relaxed in the 1700s than in our current and immediacy-oriented society) is one of the dates on our state flag: May 20, 1775. In all likelihood, the Mecklenburg Resolves from later in the month are more likely the real deal, but they lack the pizzazz and marketability the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence received in the early 19th century, when we, North Carolinians, claimed to be the first state to declare independence from Great Britain.

The more accurate and historically authentic date on our flag is for the Halifax Resolves, April 12, 1776. Even though Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone left it out of the musical “1776” (and instead credited Virginia and Maryland with paving the way for a Declaration of Independence), the Halifax Resolves were the first official resolution adopted by a colony to instruct their representatives in the Continental Congress to vote for independence from Great Britain. In essence, we are what finally brought that to a positive vote.

Anyone driving along I-95 should pull off at Halifax and visit their historic district—a State Historic Site commemoration. (Local residents also put on a wonderful outdoor drama called “First for Freedom” during summer months.)

Our current flag has been used by the State of North Carolina since 1885. I fully concede the previous flag had Confederate commemoration: Instead of the date of the Halifax Resolves, it had the date NC seceded from the Union: May 20, 1861. The symbolism of the Mecklenburg Declaration and the secession date mirroring each other was emphasized during the Civil War. However, no one having coffee on Princess Street in 2017 was alive when it flew as the official state flag. The flag was adopted in 1861 as our first official state flag. I guess prior to secession and the Civil War, we were content enough with being part of the Union, so there wasn’t a need to trouble the North Carolina General Assembly with creating a flag.

In Louisburg, NC, there is a commemoration to Orren Randolph Smith, who claims to have designed Stars and Bars—the first official flag of the Confederate States of America. Nicola Marschall of Alabama also receives credit for the design. It is an unresolved dispute for a small but very dedicated group of historical enthusiasts.

Yet, the flag that flew most frequently during the Civil War in North Carolina was called the “Bonnie Blue Flag”—deep blue with one white star in the center. I wonder how many people who love “Gone with the Wind” remember the reason Scarlett and Rhett named their daughter Bonnie was because her eyes were as blue as the Bonnie Blue Flag. The flag has faded largely from memory, and replaced for most people by the Battle Flag, which has taken on the moniker “Stars and Bars” for many. Though, the original Stars and Bars looked much more like a Union flag.

As a child I read the story of Betsy Ross creating the American flag; a pretty standard experience many American children have. Somewhere in a history or literature book, the short story of her creating a flag for the fledgling cause appears. The Smithsonian Institution has published writings questioning the validity of the story. I’m not convinced it matters to many people if Ross really did design and sew the first flag for General Washington. What matters is the resonance of the story in our collective imagination—just like the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence resonated for a long time with the imaginations of North Carolinians: “We were first. We took a stand.”

In retrospect it is something people like to believe about themselves. Though, when faced with decisions in real time, most are too scared to put a toe out of line and face consequences when they could be executed for treason.

150 years ago the two dates on our flag resonated in the hearts of North Carolinians. Now, they are largely forgotten and unnoticed on our flag. If that is the case, it makes me wonder: What, exactly, is it that captures the collective imagination of the residents of our state and makes us see ourselves as a group together, for better or worse? Would we do better to put a basketball on the state flag? What ennobles us and truly unites us?

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