Flag Policy compromise

The Revolutionary War flags will be displayed at specific times of the year, outside of the Old Burial Ground.

Above: The flags that were in the Old Burial Ground (including the yellow Gadsden flag) will be back in November — just not inside the cemetery walls. (photo by Beth Melo)

Last month, the Select Board voted to revise its Flag Policy with another compromise.

The language adopted (3-2) allows veterans to continue to fly the traditional Revolutionary War battle flags – but only for up to 20% of the year. The flags will be repositioned to fly outside of the Old Burial Ground walls.

Under the new policy:

Revolutionary War flags, as approved by the Select Board, displayed along the stone wall exterior to the cemetery by the entrance to the Old Burial Ground: (i) during the week before Patriots’ Day through the week after Memorial Day; and (ii) during the week before and after Veterans’ Day.

The policy also fixes oversights in the interim version, which failed to cover several of the flags the Town was already flying,* including the Betsy Ross flag which will continue to fly in the Old Burial Ground year round. It also clarified that the Select Board doesn’t dictate which flags are flown at Town Meeting. 

You can read the full policy here.

Policy Decision

Traditionally, the flags have been installed leading up to Memorial Day and flown through about a week after Veterans Day. That was reflected in the interim decision the board adopted on May 23rd. At that time, some members were in favor of eliminating the Revolutionary War flags. But they agreed to address the issue on June 20th rather than suddenly prohibiting them less than a week before Memorial Day ceremonies.

That new vote took place after another 80 minutes of discussion and public comments. 

To give a starting point for discussing changes, Chair Andrew Dennington shared a draft that he wrote, vetted by Town Counsel. In it he proposed that the Revolutionary War flags only be flown the week of Patriot’s Day. He explained that was based on his belief that the tradition began in around 2002 with temporary placements to celebrate veterans of the Revolutionary War. He also felt that it wasn’t inconsistent with the vote at the fall Special Town Meeting.

Member Al Hamilton proposed the longer period. In contrast, members Kathy Cook and Sam Stivers advocated to have only the American flag fly at the Old Burial Ground. Cook also voiced concern that the new policy doesn’t specify which Revolutionary flags the Select Board will approve to be flown. 

Member Marguerite Landry was the uncertain, deciding vote. Upon questioning from Landry, former Historical Commission member Rebecca Deans-Rowe prioritized moving the annual flag display out of the cemetery over how long they flew for. And Veterans Grave Officer Steve Whynot said that he would accept flying them outside the walls. With that compromise agreed, Landry supported the motion.

Discussion and Debate

Many of the comments prior to the vote went over the same ground as previous debates, but there were some worthy highlights.

Cook argued that given the chunk of time proposed, the new policy wasn’t really changing anything. She stated that before the issue came up, she wasn’t familiar with any of the flags. She said that other than some veterans no one she spoke to was in favor of keeping them. She stressed that the board supports veterans and they will be working on honoring the Revolutionary war veterans in the cemetery. 

During the discussion, Landry wondered whether the flags were being flown in honor of buried residents’ beliefs or based on modern beliefs that romanticized “our origin myth as a country”.

Kevin Miller argued that the Betsy Ross flag in the Old Burial Ground should be replaced since it hasn’t been our flag since about 1794. He said that he did like seeing them used as grave markers.

Gadsden Flag

As Whynot referenced, the Town debates over the flag initially came up in 2021 when the former Historical Commission Chair, Michael Weishan, called to try to convince Whynot to take the Gadsden Flag down since it was “racist”. (The actual words exchanged have been heatedly debated since.)

The racism charges stem from use by radical groups associated with white supremacists. Weishan publicly said he was anonymously contacted by people concerned about its use in the Historical cemetery. He also stated that the flag had been associated with the pre-Civil War call to secede from the Union.

At the June meeting, Hamilton, Commander Dan Kolenda and Steve Whynot again argued that compromising by replacing that flag would be ceding its meaning to those who have misused it. Hamilton reiterated that many flags were carried by the “traitors” on January 6th, and most of them were Trump or American flags. He noted, “we should actually appreciate the fact that our veterans are trying to reclaim this image take it away from the traitors”. 

Many commented on the need for better educating the public and children on the history and meaning of the flags. Preferring to call it the Hopkins flag, Hamilton reminded that Gadsden copied the symbol and had a flag made for Commander Hopkins who used it for the first Continental Navy, He also said that the symbol had long been used by libertarian leaning grumps like him. 

In contrast, Meme Luttrell commented, “the Gadsden flag is a anti-government flag. it was flown against the government at the time which was the English government and it’s been co-opted and flown against the government since then. So I can’t understand how the town and their Municipal speech would fly an anti-government flag.”

Grant Farrington likened the discussion about the old flags to the discussions in the south around Confederate flags and monuments that some view as “expression of Southern Heritage”. Dennington called that a “false analogy”.

During the discussion, Dennington repeatedly reminded that the Select Board’s recent decision to revisit the issue wasn’t based on the Gadsden Flag. It was based on the Supreme Court’s decision about flag policies issued last summer. That has forced many towns to revisit their policies.

Flag Placement

Rebecca Dean Rowe re-raised the issue of where the Revolutionary War flagpoles are displayed. She reiterated that the work done to locate the unmarked graves the Old Burial Ground determined that there were ones under the area where the flags are placed. She considered that to be disrespectful. She pointed out that you wouldn’t place on in the middle of a grave site with a headstone.

Whynot continued to dispute the grave locations based on what he had been told by late Historical member Russell Horne.

*The policy didn’t cover all of the military and service flags flown at the All Wars Memorial and the Betsy Ross Flag in the Old Burial Ground. And they had neglected to update the list of Revolutionary War era flags after Commander Steve Whynot updated that he planned to use the British Flag instead of the “Tree Flag” this year. (He couldn’t get ahold of a Tree flag and someone had recommended the British flag to acknowledge residents were still British subjects when the Town was founded.)

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Christopher Beasley
10 months ago

In May, I read about a 7-member flag study committee that will report to the board about their research of the flags displayed and Revolutionary War Veterans interned at the OBG. I have questions about the process after reading this new 20 June policy.
Why was this policy adopted prior to the flag committee completing its work?
If the flag committee completed its work early, where is that report, and can it be released to the public?
If the flag committee still needs to complete its work, should we expect additional discussion and another policy update after its work is completed by May 2024?
What will be the bureaucratic process to review and select the “Revolutionary War Flags” for display during the limited periods set forth in the new policy?
What is the definition of the terms “Military Flags” and “Revolutionary War Flags” used in the new policy?
Respectfully, Chris Beasley

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