Confederate flags prompts local rebuke

EAST MIDDLEBURY — The recent flying of Confederate flags on at least two private properties in Middlebury is being condemned by many area residents still reeling in the aftermath of white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead, numerous people injured, and a nation in need of healing.
Locals noted the Confederate flags flying this past weekend at a Case Street home in the village of East Middlebury and another that was still flying on Wednesday at a School House Hill Road residence east of the airport.
Patricia Sprague said her visiting son was responsible for the Confederate flag that flew at her Case Street home last Friday and into the weekend. She said she removed the flag when she became aware of its presence. Her son — whom she said resides in North Carolina — has now left the area.
“I am a very good person and I am not prejudiced,” Sprague told the Independent. “I’m really very sorry, and there’s nothing else I can say.”
While the flag was up for a relatively short period of time, it had a visceral impact among some in the neighborhood.
Kemi Fuentes-George placed his infant daughter into her car seat last Friday for a familiar drive down Case Street/Route 116 to pick up his wife from work.
But as he pulled past the Case Street home, Fuentes-George — who hails from Jamaica and is black — saw something that was unfamiliar, unsettling and very unwelcome: A Confederate flag, flying only a few blocks from his own front door.
He said he was shocked by a sight he never thought he’d encounter in Vermont — a state that proudly hosted several stops on the Underground Railroad for former slaves who had escaped from the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The Fuentes-George family includes three children, ages 10 and under. They, like most children, have been happily oblivious to racial discord. But Fuentes-George, an assistant professor of political science at Middlebury College, knows the time will soon come when they will start asking questions about flag symbolism and Charlottesville.
“It would be one thing if they had a lot of friends of color, but they don’t,” he said. “I’ve thought about ‘When do I tell them about this stuff?’ The unfortunate thing is that this is something they’re going to have to hear about sooner or later.”
Fuentes-George’s first exposure to racial hatred came while he was a graduate student at Ohio Wesleyan University, located in Columbus. He recalled going out one evening with some Jamaican friends and being followed by a man and called them the “N-word.”
“That was my first experience seeing how hateful people could be, and also how frightening (racism) could be,” he said. “It was a pretty alarming experience.”
He thought those days were behind him when he relocated a few years ago to Middlebury, a community he was told was racially homogenous but “very progressive.”
But the recent Confederate flag incident, Fuentes-George said, is making him “question how progressive and liberal this area really is.”
EAST MIDDLEBURY RESIDENTS have expressed concerns about confederate flags that have been flying at two different homes. This flag has been seen at 32 Schoolhouse Hill Road.
Peter K. Klimkowski took some time on Wednesday afternoon to talk about the Confederate flag he had displayed at his School House Hill Road home for the past year. Klimkowski, 49, said his affinity for the “stars and bars” dates back to his childhood. He said his mother bought him a Confederate flag when he was a teen because she considered him a “rebel.”
He talked about riding his bike as a youth, pretending he was Bo or Luke Duke from the once-popular “Dukes of Hazard” TV show that featured a 1969 Dodge Charger called the “General Lee” that featured a prominent Confederate flag.
“I grew up with it,” said Klimkowski, a New Jersey native who once lived in Georgia.
Asked what the Confederate flag represents to him, he replied, “Good memories from my past. It has nothing to do with any kind of racism. I understand it does to some people. I put it out more because of people saying that ‘This is what it means and people need to take it away.’”
Klimkowski said people should have the freedom to display the flag of their choice.
“This is the United States of America; you want to fly whatever flag you want, then go ahead,” he said. “There are flags that offend me, but I don’t ask people to take them down.”
Klimkowski was aware of recent events in Charlottesville, but does not see his flying of the Confederate flag as being insensitive.
“If people are offended or hurt, don’t look at it,” Klimkowski said. “Leave me be. I’m not doing anything. I’ve got a flag.”
He added no one has asked him to take the flag down in the past, and he doesn’t plan on removing it.
“When you walk past, look the other way,” Klimkowski said. “I am not out to purposely hurt anybody.”
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said there is no law that prohibits residents from flying the flag of their choice on their private property, though he personally wonders why someone might choose the Confederate flag. To some — particularly some in the Southern states — it is a soldier’s flag that they consider part of their heritage. But to a majority of Americans, it has become a symbol of racial intolerance and divisiveness.
“Given that over 300,000 people from the north, including many thousands from Vermont, died fighting the rebels who fought under that flag and the reasons they fought under that flag being contrary to the  antebellum culture of Vermont, it is inconceivable to me why any Vermont resident would display the thing,” Hanley said.
Hanley recently returned from a trip to Northern Ireland.
“When I saw in Belfast … unionists carrying the same flag while wearing KKK regalia. It only reminded me that symbols of bigotry are alive and well and have been exported,” he said.
Middlebury resident Judy Wiger-Grohs on Monday posted a statement on Front Porch Forum urging, “In light of recent events in Charlottesville, Va., I once again respectfully request any individual(s) flying the Confederate (battle) flag at their home, on their vehicle, etc. to discontinue the practice. While you may believe this flag is a symbol of history and heritage, for the majority of us it is a symbol of slavery, racism, bigotry, prejudice and hate. It has no place in Vermont. It has no place in the United States. It is time for tolerance, inclusiveness, equity, fairness and justice for all.”
Wiger-Grohs — who often passes by Klimkowski’s home — told the Independent she believes turning back hatred and intolerance must occur at the grassroots level if it is to ultimately succeed.
“I strongly believe the only way things change is by people, individually or in groups, causing change to happen,” she said. “If we sit back and do nothing, that’s what we get. Nothing.
“We may be a rural Vermont town, but we still suffer from the same problems.”
Like Wiger-Grohs, several other Middlebury residents expressed concerns about the display of Confederate flags.
The group Indivisible Middlebury on Monday held a downtown rally for the people of Charlottesville. Resident Ariane van Driel van Wageningen is leader of the local group, formed as part of a national “Indivisible” movement in protest of some of the Trump administration’s policies.
Around 100 people turned out at Monday’s event.
“It was great to see a relatively large crowd turn up at short notice, and I think it is indicative of how strongly people feel about what happened in Charlottesville,” van Driel van Wageningen said.
“After what happened at Charlottesville, nobody can pretend anymore to be unaware of what the Confederate flag stands for: A symbol of violence against vulnerable minorities, and hatred,” she added. “Anyone not clearly speaking out against it is, in my view, at least partially enabling this terrible disease of our society to linger on. It is time to take a clear stand, and I am hopeful that more people are shocked into realizing that.”
Middlebury residents have shown a history of rallying against intolerance within their community. For example, a significant public outcry and a series of community forums followed the discovery last November of swastika graffiti at Havurah House, a gathering place for the Addison County Jewish community.
An East Middlebury resident left an unsigned letter posted at the East Middlebury Post Office last weekend urging removal of the Case Street Confederate flag. Post Office worker Carol Bogren removed the letter on Tuesday morning after the Independent made her aware of its presence and had asked her for a copy of it. She said the letter could not be posted on the Post Office premises because it espoused a political viewpoint. East Middlebury Post Office officials declined to allow the Independent to view the letter in order to take notes without permission from higher-ups.
Stephen N. Doherty, communications specialist with the USPS’s Boston office, ultimately provided the Independent with a copy of the letter later that day.
The letter, which began with “Hello Neighbor,” urged that the Confederate flag be taken down. It also noted a decision by the Addison County Fair and Field Days board last year to ban the sale of any merchandise bearing an image of the Confederate flag.
“The idea that certain people are superior to others because of where their ancestors lived is an idea that has caused more suffering and destruction that any other,” the letter reads. “Please adorn your home with images that do not inspire fear.”
Middlebury resident Karen Guttentag is also Associate Dean for Judicial Affairs and Student Life at Middlebury College. Like Fuentes-George, she was shocked to see it flying in the neighborhood. She ended up visiting the Sprague household to share her concerns.
“She was very receptive to my concern and seemed to genuinely want to be a good neighbor,” Guttentag said of Sprague’s reaction. “My sense was that she had not anticipated or deeply considered what her son was communicating, via her property, to the community, and that she was embarrassed and regretful.”
Guttentag offered her take on what the community might be able to do in the future to avoid sending a message of intolerance.
“I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all strategy to racial intolerance,” she said. “It seems to me that we need to make sure the most targeted members of our community feel clear and consistent affirmation and support. We also need to recognize that our efforts of standing up to bigotry are not charitable acts on behalf of others but are acknowledgements of ways in which racism compromises all of our lives, regardless of our identities. I am also optimistic enough to believe that just as intolerance and bigotry can be learned, it can also be unlearned. While there may be some espousers of these prejudices who are not worth engaging, there may be others with whom we can make progress, and we are a small enough community to identify them and reach out and engage them constructively. I hope we do.”
Middlebury Selectman and local businessman Farhad Kahn, who hails from India, was very concerned to hear about Confederate flags flying in the town he adopted as his home more than 22 years ago.
“Our community should not tolerate something like this,” Kahn said, noting Middlebury’s longstanding reputation for being a community that accepts people of different races and faiths.
“These kinds of things set you a step back,” he said.
Longtime East Middlebury resident Peggy Peabody hopes her community doesn’t take a step back.
“It has taken a great deal of time for East Middlebury to get some diversity, and I would feel badly if people felt uncomfortable living here.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

Share this story:

More News
News Uncategorized

Fresh Air Fund youths returning to county

The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)

Obituaries Uncategorized

Mark A. Nelson of Bristol

BRISTOL — A memorial service for Mark A. Nelson of Bristol will be held 1 p.m. on Saturday … (read more)

Sports Uncategorized

High school athletes ready for fall playoffs this week

See when your favorite high school team is competing in the fall sports playoffs.

Share this story: