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Arts & Culture

A Year Later, Former SC Statehouse Confederate Flag Remains In Storage

The Confederate battle flag flew above the South Carolina capitol or on its grounds for 44 years. That changed after the massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. Photos emerged of accused killer Dylann Roof with the flag. Demands to take it down intensified, and the Confederate flag was gone three weeks later.

It was sent to a state museum for display. But as Sarah Delia reports from Columbia, that display isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

July 10, 2015 was a hot sticky day in Columbia some hundred miles away from where the tragedy in Charleston had occurred about three weeks before.

Still, thousands gathered outside the statehouse to see one thing: the ceremonial lowering of the Confederate battle flag. Some came to say goodbye to what they felt was a piece of southern heritage. Others came to celebrate its removal.

Just 24 hours earlier Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill that ordered the removal of the flag.

It was decided that the rightful place was about a mile away from the Statehouse at The Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. But a year later, it’s still not available to the public.

Through locked doors and a secured room, Rachel Cockrell the Registrar and Operations Chief of The Relic Room and Military Museum walks through a maze of racks stacked to the brim with stored objects.

Space is limited in their storage room so they’ve had to get creative with the tight quarters.

It’s like a waiting room for artifacts that range from the Revolutionary War to the present day…letters, weapons, uniforms, and yes a number of Confederate flags. The flags are rotated in and out of the gallery to limit exposure to light because they are so old. Some pieces are so fragile they have yet to be displayed.  

This is also where the nylon flag that flew for two weeks at the Statehouse is stored.

"I guess it was inevitable because Confederate is in our name, and it’s a Confederate flag. But it’s not a military artifact, it’s a political artifact. That’s not really what we’re in the business of collecting. But we’re a state agency and when the state says we do this, we do it," said Cockrell.

The museum was tasked with properly caring for the flag and coming up with a proposal for a display for the flag that includes some kind of memorial and would mean an expansion to The Relic Room’s current space. The proposal, about $3.5 million, was rejected by legislators this year.

So, the flag continues to wait in storage.

The flag is stored in a textile box wrapped in acid free tissue paper to pad it down.

"This is the way that any historic thing would be stored for a flag that was two weeks old at the time we put it in the box, it seems like a little bit of overkill....but if we intend on saving this flag for over 150 years just like the others, we give it the same level of care," Cockrell said.

This is not the flag Charlotte activist Bree Newsome removed in an act of civil disobedience, although police turned it over to the museum this year. This is the flag that immediately replaced it and flew until July 10.

And Cockrell was there that hot day when it was officially taken down. In fact, she helped escort the flag to The Relic Room.

"We had a run through with law enforcement the day before so they could tell us where everything was going to be. My director and I were the ones who were driven around and shown how things were going to happen. He was the one who walked out and accepted it from the patrolmen. I was in the Statehouse with the box," Cockrell recalls.

Once the flag was placed in the box, things sped up.

"They transported us in a bulletproof vehicle and we had a decoy so that nobody knew where we were. They wanted to make sure there were no incidents."

The flag was rolled up to the size of sausage which was good for transporting but not for storage. So when they got back to the museum they unrolled it, patted it out, and put in storage. When it was all said and done, it took about 15 minutes. 

As you walk through the museum galleries and exhibits, it does seem a little off that this political artifact, as Cockrell calls it, is housed here. Many of the artifacts already on display have been through war.

These are historical pieces that have wear and tear, visible scars that tell a story. The nylon flag that came down from the Statehouse looks like a brand new flag—and it was until it was lowered. Its significance is in the sequence of events that led to its removal.

Still, the public want to see this printed nylon flag. In fact, Cockrell recalls people stopping by the following week after it came down to see if it was on display.

What she told them then is what she’ll have to tell visitors now until The Relic Room’s proposal is accepted by the state legislators, it’s going to be a while before the Confederate flag thousands came to see go down, goes up in the museum.