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Why a Philly lawmaker pulled down a Confederate flag in the state House

Rep. Vanessa Brown said a woman showing the Confederate flag display told her, “The ships that carried your people here, also flew the United States flag.”

Philly state Rep. Vanessa Brown took down a Confederate flag in the state capitol yesterday, but how it got there in the first place and why someone put it back on display today remains a mystery.

Three Confederate-related flags had been on display in the state Capitol since last month, courtesy of the Hanover Area Historical Society’s historical flags exhibit, and they were ordered to be removed by Gov. Tom Wolf today. Depending on the media report, Philly state Rep. Vanessa Brown has been credited with leading to their removal and also with being stopped by Capitol police while trying to do so.

Here’s what really happened, according to Brown.

Late afternoon Tuesday, she was walking through the Capitol and spotted a Confederate flag as part of a display. It was in the East Wing Rotunda. Brown immediately took the flag down and brought it to House Speaker Republican Mike Turzai’s office.

“I said, ‘are you aware this is flying in the capital,’” Brown said. “And he said, ‘Absolutely not’ and apologized before I could say why it was offensive.”

Brown said Turzai told her he would investigate to find out who approved for it to be in the Capitol and that it would not be displayed. She figured the situation was over. Then today Brown was walking through the same area of the Capitol after a committee meeting and saw a press conference happening about the flag, with Republican Adams County State Rep. Dan Moul present, as well as representatives of the Hanover Area Historical Society and some school-aged children. (Moul could not be reached for comment). 

Brown said a woman with the Hanover Area Historical Society grabbed her by the arm and said she needed to talk with her about the flag.

“I said,” says Brown, “‘Say what you want in front of all these people.’”   

Brown said she told her the flag was with proper authorities and that as long as she was in the Capitol, no Confederate flag would be flying, and that the group wasn’t correctly teaching Civil War history to school children.

At one point during the conversation, Brown said, the woman told her, “The ships that carried your people here, also flew the United States flag.”

Capitol police came at this point, and Brown said the woman blamed her for taking the flag. A person who answered the phone at the Hanover Area Historical Society identified Debra Markle as the person in charge of the flags exhibit. Markle did not respond to a message left on her home phone.

The flag was put back on display, with police guarding it.

“Later police came to my office,” Brown said, “and warned me if I touched the flag again I was going to be arrested.

“I’m just appalled they would put out there that I stole the flag…. I used my authority as a Representative to make the house aware that this flag was flying and that it represented a part of history that was disrespectful.”

How did the flag get back up?

“Maybe Turzai didn’t have the authority,” Brown said. “Maybe the police threatened the Speaker. Who knows? They were really serious about upholding the rights of the people in charge of the flag.”

Turzai’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, told Billy Penn said the flag was hung, removed, and re-hung before the Governor’s office was notified that it was hanging in the capitol in the first place. Once Wolf’s office was notified, it ordered the Dept. of General Services to remove the flags. 

In a statement, the Dept. of General Services said in February, the Hanover Historical Society requested to display historical flags from June 1 through June 31 in the capitol as part of a Flag Day observance. Moul and Rep. Kate Klunk worked with the Society on its request. General Services wrote in the statement that it wasn’t aware a Confederate Flag was part of the exhibit until today, after it had already been removed and then put back. At that point, it was directed by Wolf’s administration to remove the three Confederate flags from the display and did so.

This isn’t the first time the Confederate flag has been an issue for Brown in Harrisburg. She said the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus takes children to the Pennsylvania Farm Show every year and once a child spotted a vendor selling belts with Confederate flag buckles. The child said he wanted to buy one. She’s tried to get a ban on state agencies from having a connection to the flag like this.

To Brown, the display of the Confederate flag in the Capitol couldn’t have come at a worse time. The one-year anniversary of the racially-motivated murders of nine black people in Charleston happened one year ago Friday.

“If you had the true history underneath the flag then I’m OK with it,” Brown said. “They were showing it as symbol of pride, up with all the other flags. Well then tell the story. Don’t be afraid or ashamed.”

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