Select Board approves “interim” Flag Policy

Battle Flags can fly in the Old Burial Ground at least until a standing policy is adopted this summer. A new committee will also study how to best honor Revolutionary War veterans.

Above: The military flags in the Old Burial Ground have been a source of contention for two years. They still are this spring and are likely to spark more debate this summer. But the Select Board hopes a committee this year will help find a solution. (photo by Beth Melo)

On Tuesday night, the Select Board adopted an “interim policy” for flying flags on municipal properties it controls. Under temporary rules the battle flags will fly in the Old Burial Ground for now.

If the discussion had taken place prior to flags being re-installed in preparation for the Memorial Day parade this coming Monday, the vote may have gone another way. And whether that tradition will continue going forward will be readdressed this summer. 

The board also agreed to have a new committee study how Revolutionary War veterans should be honored in the historic cemetery.

Both the flag policy and the committee were proposed by newly elected member Al Hamilton. Hamilton quipped that he was jumping into the deep end with sharks by taking on the controversial topic in his first regular meeting of the board.

Hamilton urged that the Town does need a policy. He proposed having only the American Flag flown on Select Board controlled properties except for an allowance to fly the traditional battle flags in the old Burial Ground from mid-May to the week after Veteran’s Day. 

That wasn’t the position that Hamilton had taken at Candidates Night when he said that only the American Flag should fly.

However, Hamilton argued that based on the Supreme Court’s decision against Boston last year, the Town faces a liability that needs to be addressed quickly. But he also wanted to have a “cooling down” period before coming up with a long term policy that might change what flags are allowed.

Hamilton had sat down with parties on both sides of the issue, plus spoken with many others. He believed a compromise solution was to create the study committee to look at what the right way to honor the veterans in the cemetery would be. That would include paying tribute to the over 25 Revolutionary War veterans believed to be buried with unmarked graves. The committee will include representatives from the Veterans and from the Historical Commission.

His motion was for the committee to make its recommendations by next May, which is when he initially proposed the interim flag policy would expire.

The legal vulnerability issue was made to the board and to Special Town Meeting voters last year by Debbie DeMuria. She had filed a Citizen’s Petition Article asking voters to advise the board to adopt a policy to only fly American flags on municipal properties. She argued that otherwise the Town may be forced to fly flags requested by other groups that might be objectionable.

October 2022 votes on supporting a policy to only allow the American flag to be flown on Town properties. (images edited from Southborough Access Media video)A striking majority voted against it.

At that time, voters were told that Town Counsel opined that DeMuria’s liability argument was inaccurate. This week, Hamilton said that he believed the attorney’s opinion was based on erroneous assumptions.

In researching the issue, Hamilton couldn’t find that the board had ever authorized the Veteran’s Grave Officer to fly the flags. He said the officer’s authority to do that wasn’t covered under the responsibilities described under state law. (And the Town hasn’t created a job description or bylaw to give the position special duties.) Therefore, he believed the flags qualified as being raised by private groups as private speech on public property.

Chair Kathy Cook acknowledged that the Town has been ignoring a request submitted months ago to fly other flags in the Old Burial Ground. At the Special Town Meeting, Michael Weishan, (who had publicly opposed the battle flags as problematic due to racist associations) told the hall that he had submitted a request to the Town to fly other flags, including the BLM flag and rainbow flag.

Cook also wanted to adopt a policy. But both Cook and member Sam Stivers weren’t fans of continuing to fly the controversial battle flags, especially the Gadsden Flag. Cook noted that it isn’t a veterans cemetery and even the national cemeteries for veterans only fly the American flag. She stressed she didn’t want to be dealing with the same issue in another year.

Stivers said they could consider the two year since objections to the flags were first raised to have already been a cooling period. Cook initially leaned towards supporting Stivers’ suggestion to eliminate the battle flags immediately. Member Andrew Dennington opposed overruling the Town Meeting vote so soon before Memorial Day.

After hearing from Veterans especially upset about the proximity to Memorial Day, Cook changed her mind. Instead, she advocated to adopt Hamilton’s policy with a shorter expiration, then work on a new policy in June. Others agreed and the motion was amended to have the interim policy last only until September 30. (The committee will still have until next May for their work.) 

To read the policy and the committee details, click here.

During the discussion, member Marguerite Landry asked Veterans Agent Brian Stearns to address the public upset over Gadsden Flag, seen in photos as used by groups “trying to destroy the American government.” He responded that he understood their upset, but explained that for people whom the flag flew on their ships it means something different to them, and is a symbol of respect, not hate. Later Landry opined that if the flag is flown along with other flags, it removes some of the sting by putting it in historical context.

Other comments from the public:

  • Dan Kolenda (former Select Board Member and American Legion Commander) supported the approach that Hamilton proposed, “trying to bring the community together”.
  • Grant Farrington (a member of the Historical Commission) said the board should think what “speech” the government wants to be making and opposed kicking the can down the road by having an interim policy.
  • Stearns agreed on the necessity of having a policy and would be happy to help on it as he has with other Towns he supports/has supported. Upon questioning he confirmed that none of those towns fly battle flags (Hudson, Berlin, Bolton, and formerly Northborough, Grafton, Shrewsbury and Westborough).
  • Chris Robbins (a veteran) said that if the board overruled the Town Meeting vote it would be “a gross misjustice”. Referring to mentions that no National Cemeteries fly the battle flags, Robbins said “we have a unique culture in this town and we need to sustain the spirit of the families who buried its family members or relatives nurture it and stop comparing us to the federal government”.
  • DeMuria argued, “We should fly the flag of of America, because we can all stand behind it.” And she asked them to vote to ” take down the flags that are up illegally in the old burial ground.”
  • Steve Whynot (Veteran’s Graves Officer and VFW Commander) said he was “stunned” by DeMuria’s comments, positions discussed by the board, and the unmarked veterans graves that he first heard about the day prior. He argued that they were letting the Town be bullied. “Southborough is falling into this woke wokeness that’s out that’s destroying this country as it is.”
  • Sally Watters (Vice President of lSouthborough Historical Society) responded to Whynot’s questioning of the new information about unmarked graves. She pointed out that she had brought that up during a Select Board meeting he participated in two years ago. [Note: She did, along with some history of residents’ participation in the Revolutionary War.]

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David Parry
1 year ago

Am I alone? – In admitting my general ignorance of WHAT and WHY there is this heated flag controversy ? It baffles me.

Maybe the problem — in my clear understanding — comes from the lack of an adequate explanation of exactly WHAT type of flags have appeared, and WHAT they represent ? — All I hear are vague “generaliizations”. — Is it too much to ask for a clearer explanation about WHAT EXACTLY is so controversial, leading to this heated debate?.

Is it as simple as flags of the Confederacy, or what?

Mike Pojani
1 year ago

Get the history correct. The Gadsden Flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden in 1775 and flown on continental ships. Soon the Continental Marines also took up the flag as well. This was all during the American Revolution freeing us from the tyranny of England. I doubt very much that the souls that were lost had very little to do with slavery. The majority were farmers and tradesmen who just wanted freedom for all. It is unfortunate that there are groups that shed a bad light on this symbol

Al Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Pojani

It appears that the imagery on the “Gadsden Flag” was not in fact designed by Christopher Gadsden. The first recorded use of the imagery can be traced to the earlier foundation of the Marine Corps.

The first use of the imagery was on the drums of a newly formed Marine company in Philadelphia.

“Back in Philadelphia, a group of Marine units were being organized to try to capture British arms shipments. [Benjamin] Franklin noticed that one of their drummers had painted a rattlesnake on his drum emblazoned with the words ‘Don’t tread on me.’ Franklin suggested that this should be the symbol and motto of America’s fight.

“Christopher Gadsden, a delegate to the Congress from South Carolina, picked up the suggestion…and subsequently designed a yellow flag with a rattlesnake emblazoned ‘Don’t Tread On Me.’ It was flown in 1776 by America’s first Marine units and later by many other militias.”

Source: Benjamin Franklin – An American Life, by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster 2003

There is also an excellent Wikipedia page on the “Gadsden Flag”

Perhaps instead of calling the flag the “Gadsden Flag” we should call it the “First Flag of the Marine Corps”.

We should also distinguish between the “Gadsden Flag” and the First Navy Jack (red and white stripes, uncoiled rattle snake, “Don’t tread on me” motto). I believe this flag is sometimes used on navy and special forces uniforms and flown from Navy Ships. This flag might be confused with the “Gadsden Flag.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Al Hamilton
Mike Pojani
1 year ago

AL, great information but the point is that certain individuals correlate the flag to racism which not true. It was developed during the revolution to be used by our militia . As I stated I doubt that very few who made the ultimate sacrifice were involved in slavery. I’m sure there may have been a few that took advantage of slavery but thats not the point. Especially since the English were the biggest proponent for slavery. This whole attitude against the flag is right in line with the woke garbage gone on in this country. All the various flags developed in this country were done for various reasons. Some not good but most due to strive for freedom. Believe what you want but leave history as it should be. Not twisted by the woke liberal individuals looking to destroy this great land!

Al Hamilton
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Pojani

Using terms like “woke” or “maga” is not advancing the cause of either side of this discussion. All it does is drive people either into their respective corners or running out of the room to avoid a toxic mess.

I know and speak with the folks who are in favor of the “One Flag” policy, just as I have been speaking with those that want to continue the current display. Both sides understand our history, warts and all, and care about our community. Painting people with names, by either side, is a way of denying their humanity. It is a way of avoiding having to wrestle with the point of view of those who see the world differently.

Today, we are locked in a “I win you lose” situation. I hope, with a little dialogue (or maybe a lot of dialogue) we could find a path to a win-win. I may be on a fools errand, but I am an optimist.

David Parry
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Pojani

So back to my question, posed at the start of this series of comments —

Why on earth — if the Gadsen flag was created by revolutionary marine war heroes, who died for their new country — is it a “PROBLEM” if they fly this symbolic revolutionary flag, in the revolutionary era cemetery.?

It seems to me that this is entirely appropriate. Why ban it? Why not give it a place of HONOR instead ?

I fail to understand the logic of this debate. Or does logical reasoning not apply? If not, please explain WHY not.

What am I missing,?

Mike Pojani
1 year ago

Al, the point is this woke attitude is tearing this country apart! People have demanded to remove historical monuments because of this very attitude . I understand your concerns but until this attitude that this country is full of racist history stops and look at the real facts it will never end. The liberal politicians use racism as a tool to get their agenda across. Granted there were and still are folks who are racists and they are a minimum . If these people who try to tie all our history to racism don’t like it here then get the heck out! I lived in Detroit Michigan for over two years in the early 70’s in a total 90% Afro American area and never had one issue with any folks. They were great people very friendly and more than happy to become a lifelong friend . Nowadays it is a mess due to political agendas. These historical flags has nothing to do with the present situation . It is the bad judgement of certain politicians both local and nationwide!

Kelly Roney
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Pojani

Mike, I want to treat you as a person of good faith, just as I hope you’ll treat me as a person of good faith. We can disagree without being enemies, right!

As a liberal and a Democrat, I want all Americans to have a shot at the American dream. I’d guess that you and I agree about this.

When I try to be woke, here’s what I mean: I try to understand what other people go through in their lives, when faced with what looks like discrimination to them. I’ve seen lots of discrimination from the outside. You may have, too. Imagine how much they’ve seen!

When I say black lives matter, I mean that black lives matter, too. I thought this was obvious, that it was obvious that no one ever meant that white lives didn’t matter, that it was obvious we wanted just as much value to be placed on black lives as we place on white lives – and on blue lives!

When I want American history to be taught with full recognition of black history, that’s not critical race theory, it’s just better history. I really don’t want my own history to be whitewashed, and my ancestors fought for the Confederacy under awful racist Nathan Bedford Forrest. I definitely don’t want military bases to honor traitors to America, and I’m at a loss to understand how we ever permitted that to happen. We’d never name a training base for tank warfare after Erwin Rommel, even though he’s part of history. We get to choose what and who we honor and don’t honor, and that changes as we learn.

About the Gadsden Flag, my view is that it’s not suitable for us to honor. It has become a symbol of, for example, January 6, and I don’t think we should honor that. Your opinion, about the whole picture even if not about my example, obviously differs. But we can disagree without fighting.

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