Oct. 1, 2006, 11:41PM NEW FIGHT FOR OLD SYMBOL
Taking stand for history
By RICHARD STEWART
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
ALVIN – A pair of eighth-grade Harby Junior High students plan to present petitions to the Alvin school board to allow them to wear Confederate flags and to have Confederate symbols returned to a school display honoring their school’s namesake.
Grace Harby, a longtime Alvin teacher, was an active member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
After one boy was told not to wear a belt buckle with a Confederate flag on it and another told to remove a Confederate flag from his book binder, school officials removed Harby’s UDC pin and membership card from the display honoring her.
The two 13-year-olds say they aren’t endorsing racism or a return of the Confederacy. They are just trying to remember history.
"I know we lost the Civil War; I’ve known that since I was 2 years old," said Marshall Alexander.
He said he wore a belt buckle with the American flag and the Confederate battle flag to commemorate his ancestors who fought in wars throughout American history.
"I’m not trying to bring back the Confederacy," he said. "I’m not trying to bring back slavery."
Not allowing the Confederate flag in school ignores a dramatic chapter of American history, he said.
His friend Robert Kaufman was asked by teachers and administrators in late August to remove a Confederate flag he’d put on the outside of his loose-leaf binder.
A day later Marshall was told that his belt buckle didn’t meet the school dress code. Both boys obeyed. Neither was punished.
Parents question display
The boys’ intent in wanting to wear the flag may not have been racial at all, but some who display the familiar battle flag with crossed rows of white stars on blue over a field of red use it as a symbol for white supremacy.
School administrators, sensitive to the feelings of minority patrons who see it as emblematic of slavery, often discourage or forbid its display.
The school’s dress code prohibits anyone wearing symbols that could be considered disruptive, said Alvin school districtspokeswomen Shirley Brothers.
Parents attending an open house at the school noticed that two Confederate flags were part of a display of keepsakes of Grace Harby, the school’s namesake.
Parents questioned why those flags could be in a display case at the school while students couldn’t wear them, Brothers said. The flags were removed.
Debates over displays of Confederate flags are nothing new.
In his book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, John Coski said the flag has come to mean different things to different people.
To some they are symbols of history and heritage; to others rebellion and defiance.
When Ku Klux Klan groups began using the Confederate battle flag in the 1940s, it became associated with racism and intolerance.
Over the years there have been controversies over Confederate flags being flown over some Southern statehouses and used in some Southern state flags.
There have also been debates about the flag being used by some schools and sports fans.
Most disputes about Confederate flags in schools involve schools built in the 1940s or 1950s that originally had all-white student bodies and adopted school songs based on Dixie and Confederate battle flags, Coski said.
By the 1980s, the schools’ students included many blacks, resulting in calls to change the symbols. Older graduates would object to changes in the symbols they grew up with.
Emblem’s different forms
Louisiana State University officials are now trying to discourage their fans at football games from using a form of the battle flag that uses the school’s purple and gold colors.
Actually, there never was one particular Confederate flag, Coski wrote.
The one on Marshall’s belt buckle, and the one most associated with the Confederacy today, is really an adaptation of flags carried into battle by the Army of Northern Virginia.
The flags in the school display case were the stars and bars, the first of three national flags adopted by the Confederacy.
It features a blue upper quarter with a circle of stars and two red stripes and one white stripe.
That flag is often used by legitimate Confederate historical groups as a compromise that doesn’t carry the same emotional baggage as the battle flag, Coski said.
The display case was put together in 1991 when Harby donated some of her keepsakes to the school that had been named for her a decade earlier.
She was born near Alvin in 1898, one of a dozen children of Edwin and Mildred Ward.
Her father had been a private in the Texas cavalry during the Civil War. In 1892 he moved his family to a farm in the Mustang community near the train stop named for Alvin Morgan.
Teacher was an icon
Grace Ward was the valedictorian of the Alvin High School class of 1914 and began her teaching career in 1917 in Walker County.
In 1934 she married Charles Harby, who died in 1939. They never had children and she never remarried.
She taught in various school districts around Texas before returning to the Alvin district in 1950, where she taught for several years at North Side Elementary School, Brothers said. Most of her students there were Mexican-American.
"She said many of her students didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish, but she was able to reach them anyway," Brothers said.
Harby retired in 1963 and died in 1995.
Lela Morris, of Lake Jackson, now 91, recalled that Harby gathered clothes to give to children from poor families.
Harby had been her sixth-grade teacher at Goose Creek (now part of Baytown) and librarian at Goose Creek High School. She inspired Morris to become a school librarian.
After she moved to Brazoria County and decided to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Morris said, she was delighted to meet Harby again at the first meeting she attended.
‘Real Confederate daughter’
United Daughters of the Confederacy, which has 25,000 national members and 3,000 in Texas, is made up of women who are descendants of members of the Confederate military.
They engage in various historical activities and raise money for scholarships.
(Harby) "was a real Confederate daughter," Morris said, using a title reserved for those women whose fathers were in the Confederate military.
A brass plaque on Harby’s grave at Alvin’s Confederate Cemetery honors her as a "Real Daughter." On it is a Confederate flag.
She and her husband are buried next to her parents. A small statue of a Civil War soldier stands next to her father’s headstone. He is one of 37 Confederate veterans buried at the cemetery he helped found in 1898. He died in 1929.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy was created in 1894 and uses the first Confederate national flag to disassociate itself from hate groups, said state president Janice Langford.
Both the UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans have campaigned against the use of Confederate flags by Klan and other racist organizations.
Boys devoted to history
Langford said she agrees that every school district has the right to adopt its own dress code and students should obey, but at the same time the history of the Confederacy should be studied and the flags should be allowed as symbols of Southern heritage.
"It’s a sad day when somebody wants to make an issue out of something as important as the flag," she said.
The controversy in Alvin has spurred Marshall and Robert to pore through books researching the Civil War era. Both now say they want to make history their life’s work. They have collected 600 signatures on petitions seeking permission to wear the flags in school and to have the UDC emblems returned to Harby’s display.
They plan to present their petitions to the school board at its Oct. 17 meeting.