Years before current debate, The Citadel’s Confederate flag came down quietly

Retired Citadel Chaplain Joel Harris said the battle over the Confederate flag in Summerall Chapel raged quietly on campus long before it made into the public eye.

A black-domed surveillance camera keeps watch over The Citadel’s Summerall Chapel. From its perch behind the pulpit, it has a clear shot of a Confederate naval jack that has flown inside the building since 1939 with only one notable exception.

Col. Brett Ashworth, a spokesman for The Citadel, said the public military college installed the camera on March 17. About two weeks prior, police had arrested a 1993 Citadel graduate and self-described flag opponent in front of the chapel after he led them on a chase and demanded that somebody tell Citadel President Lt. Gen. John Rosa “to come see me and take it down now.”

The man may not have known it, but the flag had already come down once before, quietly, in the fall of 2013. The flag’s removal and eventual reinstatement predate the current furor over the flag’s white supremacist connotations and seem to show an administration that bent to pressure from defenders of the flag.

As for the installation of the camera in the chapel, Ashworth said the late-night police chase expedited the process but that “there had been plans” to install it previously.

Retired Lt. Col. Joel Harris, who retired as The Citadel’s chaplain in December, has a hard time believing that.

“Nobody ever considered putting a security camera there until that incident,” Harris said — not even when thieves broke into the offertory box.

The Confederate symbol has created trouble for the school recently, starting in 2014 when a county councilman threatened to withhold $1 million in local funding if the school did not remove the flag from its house of worship. The Citadel Board of Visitors later voted 9-3 to remove the flag but claimed their hands were tied because South Carolina’s Heritage Act forbids the removal of Confederate monuments and markers.

Most recently, congressional Democrats led by Rep. Jim Clyburn sought to cut off Reserve Officers’ Training Corps funding for the school until the flag came down. Republicans in the Armed Services Committee snubbed the effort by a near-unanimous vote Thursday.

Flags first appeared in the cadet chapel in 1938 at the recommendation of engineering students who thought that heavy cotton and wool flags would help dampen the echoes in the high-vaulted room. Then-president Gen. Charles Summerall asked the governor of each state and territory to donate a flag.

In June 1939, the Citadel Yacht Club received a Confederate Navy flag from a sponsor in Massachusetts, according to an article in the student newspaper. The club donated the flag to the chapel, and Summerall gave a speech calling it a symbol of “American courage and American manhood.”

Attorney General Alan Wilson would later cite Summerall’s speech in opining that the flag was protected by the Heritage Act.

Knowing the flag’s history as a replica of a re-gifted sound buffer, Harris said he was incensed when he visited the chapel around spring break and saw the new surveillance camera.

“What are we protecting?” Harris said.

Harris joined The Citadel in 2009 after serving 25 years in the Army. His first clash with The Citadel brass wasn’t about the Confederate flag. It was about the Christian flag flying atop the interdenominational chapel.

In his first meeting with Rosa, Harris questioned whether a state-owned building at a public college should bear such a blatant religious endorsement. The flag stayed.

In January 2013, Harris received a phone call from retired Air Force Reserve Col. Abe Goldfarb, a Jewish 1960 Citadel graduate. Goldfarb said he had visited campus for a basketball game and was surprised to see the cross atop the chapel lit up at night. He later read a pamphlet billing the chapel as a place “for all cadets” and scoffed.

“How can it be for all the cadets? On its face it isn’t,” Goldfarb said.

After some additional pressure from alumni, Harris said the president’s executive assistant seemingly gave him the go-ahead not only to replace the Christian flag with a Corps of Cadets flag but also to replace the Confederate Navy flag with “Big Red,” a flag with a white palmetto that Citadel men fought and died under during the Civil War.

Harris wasted no time ordering the new flags. He said it had always troubled his conscience when black visitors would enter the chapel and stare at the Confederate flag.

“I thought we understood Gen. Rosa to give us permission to do whatever we needed to do to avoid any conflict,” Harris said. He added that this turned out to be a misunderstanding.

According to Harris, the Confederate and Christian flags came down on or around Aug. 1, 2013. On Sept. 5, a facilities worker flipped a breaker and the cross went dark.

The white supremacist blog White Unity reported on Sept. 9 of that year that the Confederate flag had been “removed due to pressure from the left-wing,” citing a then-current cadet as a source. No other news outlets picked up the story.

On Sept. 25, 2013, following pressure from alumni, Harris said, the school brought the flags back out and lit the cross again.

According to Ashworth, Rosa and the Board of Visitors turned the cross back on because of its historic nature and returned the flags under the authority of the Heritage Act since “the chapel is a memorial recognizing all conflicts.”

“Changes of this nature are not something a staff member has the authority to do on their own,” Ashworth said.

Harris said the school could have brokered a compromise by flying Big Red or removing the Confederate flag altogether to the school museum. But the chance for a quiet resolution has long since passed.

“For me, the issue is not rewriting history,” Harris said. “It’s about placing certain icons in the appropriate venue.”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.