In February, the city council in Charlottesville, Virginia voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park which – at the time – had the same name. The controversy that followed culminated in a violent rally in the city this August, and renewed a discussion about white supremacy and what to do with Confederate monuments.
Although Idaho doesn’t have a monument dedicated to General Lee, the debate over Confederate symbols is not confined to southern states.
For Boisean Allen Walde, selling the Confederate flag in his store is part of doing business. Walde runs the Flag Store of Idaho out of his home office. It's an orderly room with boxes of neatly stacked flags on shelves that go up to the ceiling. He takes out a pair of scissors and gingerly cuts the edge of the plastic cover to a flag at his desk.
“Let me get this flag out for you," says Walde. "This is a 2x3 Confederate battle [flag]. This is the one under the controversy.”
Walde sells a handful of Confederate flags a year, about the same as any other flag in his store. But unlike other products, the choice to sell them isn’t automatic.
“I did have to kind of think about it a little because of the Confederate battle flag being labeled racist.”
But the businessman didn’t agree with this label, and so he decided to keep the flag in his inventory. Walde has to special order them through a company in Georgia because the national flag companies he usually buys from don’t stock the Confederate symbol anymore.
In 1863, President Lincoln established the Idaho Territory. The huge swath of land encompassed what is now Montana, Idaho and most of Wyoming. At the same time, thousands of miners – many of them Confederate veterans or sympathizers – came to the Boise Basin after gold was struck near Idaho City.
“Ever since that day, Idaho has been a northern satellite for the South,” says Boise State history professor Todd Shallat.
He says places like Atlanta, Grayback Gulch and Stanley get their name from Confederate history. There’s even a few spots named “Dixie” and a Robert E. Lee Campground.
Shallat says many of the Confederate sympathizers who came to Idaho were seeking a better life far from the horrors of the Civil War. But just because Richmond was thousands of miles away didn’t mean their dreams of a white-dominant, small-government, agricultural haven couldn’t come true.
“And so it was that Lincoln and the Union realized that the War was really about who was going to control the West," the historian says. "So what they did is they took action.”
Lincoln sent Union soldiers to a new post at Fort Boise to prevent a new South from forming, just one day after the Battle of Gettysburg ended.
For Nate Pyles, Civil War history is deeply personal. Pyles is the Chaplain of the Idaho chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and calls it a heritage group.
He has ancestors who fought – and died – for both the Union and the Confederacy. He learned about some of his family history from his grandmother.
“So she told me as a kid: ‘I had two grandfathers – one fought for the North and one fought for the South,' " And I was always so fascinated by that because I was interested in the Civil War and I never knew about the Southern connection.”
He says being a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is complicated today.
"We don’t want to be labeled something we’re not, you know? We abhor racism and white supremacism and all that rubbish.”
Pyles doesn’t want monuments to be removed, and he acknowledges that the Confederate flag has been used by racists throughout the years – as it was in Charlottesville. But he insists he and his group have nothing to do with that image.
“It pisses me off, I mean it really does," the group leader says. "I think it’s disgusting that people hijack the Confederate flag for white racism.”
But to Vince Hutchings, honoring his Confederate heritage is not as innocuous as Pyles may think.
“Does that make them bad people? No it does not," says Hutchings. "I’m being emphatic here – it does not make them bad people. But to say that ‘well, because it is about heritage it is necessarily not about race,’ I am saying that is wrong.”
Hutchings is a political science professor at the University of Michigan. He says you can’t have a conversation about Confederate flags or monuments without bearing in mind one thing:
“It is worth noting of course that the Confederacy was designed to preserve and expand slavery. That was the whole point of the war.”
After the violent rally in Charlottesville, the Idaho Black History Museum in Boise hosted an event and hundreds of people came – most of them white. Executive Director Phillip Thompson says they had a lot of questions:
“'What do we do now, how do we fix this, what is the role we can play?'”
Thompson – who was born and raised in Idaho – says the reaction to remove Confederate monuments and flags around the country is understandable. But he says as a black man in Idaho, he takes a slightly different approach.
“Somebody saying they want to celebrate their Confederate history," Thomson says, "I can’t automatically assume that that means, ‘Oh that means they want to celebrate the institution of slavery."
One time, he had to inform an acquaintance who had a Confederate sticker on his phone about the history of the symbol.
“And he identified it more in a western Idaho cowboy, you know, Ford truck-libertarian-small-government disposition. And he wasn’t even aware of the full meaning of the stars and bars of the South because he’s from up here and he’s 22-years-old.”
Thompson admits if he lived in the South, his reaction might be different. But he says people still need to be sensitive when they fly the battle flag, because it can be an aggressive gesture. He notes there needs to be ongoing conversation between both sides.
The Idahoan says it’s hard to find much hope when he looks at the national conversation around race these days, but that we’ve got to keep trying.
This story is part of KBSX's news series "Legacy Of Hate."
Find reporter Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill
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