Strip mall’s inclusion of Confederate symbol upsets neighbors By Lee Reinsch
ALLOUEZ — Allouez resident Rita Drewieske has been troubled lately by something that’s moved into her village. Not gang violence or pornography but something worse, in her eyes: a replica Confederate flag, which is flying outside a local shopping area.
“I just find it so offensive,” said Drewieske, whose daughter is black. “The flag keeps being taken, so I must not be the only one offended by it.”
That the flag has been stolen twice and the subject of phone calls, angry comments and letters telling him to take it down doesn’t deter Norm Watermolen, 78, owner of Heritage Village Shoppes, from displaying it. Heritage Village Shoppes, 801 Hoffman Road, is a 14- to 16-unit historic-designed retail center.
An American history enthusiast, Watermolen created a flag plaza last fall to display his collection of 18 historically significant flags. Among them: the 20-foot by 30-foot Old Glory; the flag for the battle of the Alamo; the St. George Cross, which was carried to the New World by most of the early English explorers; the Continental flag used at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 and a replica of a Betsy Ross original.
Twenty more displayed on the mall building represent nations whose people immigrated to Brown County in the early 20th century. Among them are flags from European countries, China, Israel, Canada, and Mexico.
But it’s the Confederate flag that’s got people like Drewieske up in arms.
Watermolen said the Confederate flag is important because it represents a part of American history that shouldn’t be forgotten.
“I just don’t see what all the trouble is,” Watermolen, a Bellevue native and longtime Allouez resident, said. “Just because somebody decided years ago that it (the Confederate flag) represented the Ku Klux Klan, and to some people in the South and here, it still does. But it’s a significant part of our history, one that should be remembered.”
After the second theft, he had it reinstalled with a hydraulic lift and padlocked, so it can’t be taken unless someone shimmies up the pole and snatches it.
Chalet Designs Ltd. salon owner Audrey Thiry of Allouez is planning to move her salon and a gift shop, Audre’s Boutique Unique into Heritage Village Shoppes at the end of April. She said the controversy over the Confederate flag in front of the mall doesn’t faze her or her clients.
“Norm (Watermolen) is absolutely not a racist. He is a historian; he is fond of our history,” she said. “My clients are thrilled that we are moving into ‘the nice mall, the one with the flags.’”
Allouez resident Ken Calewarts said he had to take a stand on the flag to show his three children to speak up about things that are important.
Calewarts said he talked to Watermolen and wrote him a letter.
Watermolen “legally has the right to fly the flag on his own property, and I agree with that. I don’t think he’s promoting (racism), but I think he’s misguided. If he wants to make a statement of American history, I would respect him more if he flew it in front of his own home rather than in my neighborhood.”
Calewarts is Allouez village attorney, but he said he spoke as a private citizen and not in an official capacity.
Watermolen says those offended by his flag should educate themselves about its other meanings — the individual right of the state, for example.
David Voelker, associate professor of humanistic studies and history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said that when it was created, the Confederate flag was a symbol for a new nation that the Southern states created when they seceded from the United States.
“They were certainly seceding in order to protect what they saw as states’ rights, so there’s no question there was that political principle at stake,” Voelker said. “People have used the Confederate flag as a symbol of both slavery and racism. But historically people have used it as a symbol of states’ rights — a symbol of pride in the independence of particular states. A freedom from oppression by a strong central government.”
But the No. 1 concern on their minds was slavery, Voelker said.
“They wanted to protect the institution of slavery, and they felt that the election of (President) Lincoln was a potential threat to the future of slavery.” Voelker said he wouldn’t call for the legal censorship of the flag. Instead, he’d call for “the use of good judgment,” he said.
Peter Kellogg, chairman of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the version of the Confederate flag that we typically see was not widely used until the 1950s and 1960s, when opposition to school desegregation was at its peak.
“Therefore its modern use is definitely a symbol of a fight against equal rights for black people. So it is fair to say it is a symbol of racism,” Kellogg said.
“Its overwhelming significance in our modern culture is as of a symbol for opposition to equality for black people. (Watermolen) acknowledged that the flag was the symbol of the KKK, so why would he be surprised people would be offended, when he is flying the symbol of a terrorist group,” Kellogg said.
Symbols carry meanings that are subject to interpretation, Voelker said, and those displaying symbols have a responsibility to the feelings of those who see them.
“Regardless of the intention of the person who is displaying a symbol, people are going to interpret it in a variety of ways,” Voelker said. “It’s hard to escape the fact that the Confederacy was associated with slavery and racism as well as states’ rights. I think that if you are displaying a symbol, you need to keep the complexity of history in mind.”
Watermolen says he wants people to keep that history in mind.