On the 700 block of Hillborn Avenue, just four blocks from the college’s Science Center entrance, the conspicuous display of a large Confederate flag has raised eyebrows both on and off campus in recent months. Though the flag is hung on private property and is thereby protected under the First Amendment, several individuals have made both the Swarthmore Borough Council and the Swarthmore Police Department aware of their discomfort with the flag’s presence, highlighting the tensions between free speech, insecurity, fear, and harm. In a traditionally liberal-leaning borough, the flag’s display so close to the college is jolting for many, a reminder of the permeability – or perhaps the illusion – of the “bubble” of political correctness often alleged to encapsulate the college and its surroundings.
“I was shocked but I was also shocked that I felt shocked,” explained A’Dorian Murray-Thomas ‘16 of her first reaction to seeing the flag. “Part of me just doesn’t want to get that comfortable because that’s when things like this really throw you for a loop. I was surprised that this was in our neck of the woods, but I know that I am privileged in feeling surprised like ‘Oh how could this happen to me in my school in the pretty little suburbs?’ We feel so far removed.”
Murray-Thomas explained that she often spent time in the borough attending church services off campus, but she has rarely felt unsafe in the past. Now, she explains, having learned of the flag’s presence, she does not feel comfortable walking in the area.
“That would trigger so much for me,” Murray-Thomas explained. “We have to be cautious. For someone to hang this still knowing what that flag can represent to the people who live just a couple doors down just a couple blocks away, it’s hurtful.”
According to the flag’s owner, however, there was no malice intended in his display.
“I strongly disagree with the notion that it’s a hateful, racist symbol,” said Matthew Stellfox, the homeowner’s son and a freshman at Widener University. “Understanding the historical context behind the Civil War and the time period, it’s clear that it wasn’t created that way, that wasn’t its intention, and it didn’t become an issue until after the war had ended…I firmly believe that it is much more about heritage than hate, but my reason for hanging it was not either of the two…it was to stand up against anyone believing that freedom of speech should be curtailed to better the feelings of others.”
Stellfox explained that he hung the flag in July as a response to the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House. He has since kept the flag up as a testament to his commitment to the Constitution and the freedoms provided by the First Amendment.
“There are no fighting words or hate speech in its form,” Stellfox explained of the flag’s display. “There is no violence being brought up with this, and I have Supreme Court Cases I can reference in support of that stance…I understand people may not like the decision to hang it, but there is nowhere in the Constitution that says that people have a right to not be offended, and it’s not hung up to cause feelings of offense or psychological distress.”
For some, however, intentionality is irrelevant to the flag’s harm given its powerful symbolism and history.
“The confederate flag is indefensible to me as a revered cultural symbol,” explained Kara Bledsoe ‘16. “It’s a flag that celebrates what is commonly known as treason. It’s a flag that was waved over the smoking, mutilated bodies of Black Americans. It’s a flag that is used to instill fear into Black people and anyone else who threatens white supremacy.”
Particularly in the wake of the June 2015 massacre of nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate flag has been the source of increased national scrutiny and pain. The shooter’s website, which included a racial manifesto defending white supremacy, prominently featured many images of the Confederate flag, raising concerns about the flag’s modern representation as a symbol of racism, slavery, and violence.
“Of course I in no way support anything associated with Dylan Storm Roof, the shooter, but I don’t think that’s the concern at this point. It’s not where my support for this issue comes from,” explained Stellfox. “I put it up at the time that the controversy started, not really as a slap in the face to anyone on the other side, but to take a stand on what I believe is a First Amendment issue and show support for the freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
Since its initial display, Stellfox’s flag has caught the attention of neighbors and commuters alike. Hillborn Avenue connects Springfield and Swarthmore, and is one of the busier roads in the borough because of its direct access to the Baltimore Pike.
“We certainly know about it because people drive up and down there all the time,” explained Swarthmore Borough Mayor, Tim Kearney. “People have made us aware. We’ve gotten lots of rolling eyes, some mumbles and grumbles.”
One neighbor, who asked to remain nameless, explained that when she first saw the display, she felt embarrassed.
“I didn’t really want it near our house. Obviously, there is nothing we can do about it – it’s his house, his front door, but I don’t like its connotations,” she said. “It seems out of place with the borough.”
Bledsoe was less shocked by the flag’s display.
“I was not surprised,” she explained. “I’ve had overtly racist experiences on and around the Swarthmore campus before, including earlier the same day I found out about this incident, so learning about the flag just got added to a list of frustrating realities that comes with the territory of being Black.”
Bledsoe explained that long before becoming aware of the flag, she has felt uncertain about her safety in the borough.
“I worry about that stuff all the time,” she said. “Will my movements be seen as antagonistic or dangerous because I walk with my hands concealed in my pockets? Will that police car driving by me on the sidewalk at night stop a few yards ahead and wait for me? What ID do I have on me to prove my legitimacy just in case something goes down? I am always thinking that in some part of my mind when I’m out in the Ville, especially. Knowing that there is at least one confirmed household a few blocks away that holds the ideals of Cconfederate pride so dear as to publicly display such a controversial symbol doesn’t do much to change that for me. I feel only slightly more unsafe than I did before I knew about the flag.”
This is not the first time that controversial symbols have been displayed on a home on the 700 block of Hillborn Ave. In 2013, just four doors down from where the Confederate flag currently hangs, a former Springfield resident – George Vucelich – hung a skeleton wearing an Obama t-shirt from a tree in his front yard. The rope used to attach the skeleton was tied around its neck, which, to many, appeared overtly evocative of a noose, however, the resident adamantly denied any racial implication in his message.
“I just kept him on the phone and kept pushing him, but he wouldn’t agree that it looked like a noose,” explained Karen Heller, a reporter for the Washington Post who covered the story while she working for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I was polite. I just respectfully disagreed with him. I said ‘Don’t you see how your neighbors would be upset?’ And he said that he just did it to annoy the Democrats.”
Within days of the skeleton’s hanging, Vucelich’s home became a scene of protest. Angered residents of the borough as well as many members of the college community held signs on Hillborn Avenue, condemning racism and violence and demanding that Vucelich remove the figure from his yard.
“It was a big to-do and it got really heated,” Kearney explained. “At one point when the Obama thing was going on, some of the Swarthmore cops did talk to him….People tried to reason with the guy, and he just became more entrenched about it. It’s a tough one. People went to his home and spoke to him, and he just got more obnoxious.”
Vice President for College and Community Relations, Maurice Eldridge was one of the many individuals affiliated with the college – including Professor of Psychology Barry Schwartz and Health Sciences and Pre-Law Advisor, Gigi Simeone – who protested the skeleton.
“That was pretty inflammatory,” Eldridge explained. “Even given right to freedom of speech, we weren’t in a position to say ‘Take it down’ other than to exercise our own free speech and object to it, and that’s what a bunch of us did.”
After a few days, Vucelich caved, removing the skeleton – which many considered to be effigy – from his front lawn. He no longer resides in Springfield, having since been incarcerated following an incident in which he fired shots at an officer of the Springfield Police Department from his front porch.
Due to the close proximity of Vucelich’s home to the home with the Confederate flag, many borough residents have confused the two houses, mistakenly assuming that the flag belongs to Vucelich. Nevertheless, the flag has proved much less incendiary than the skeleton.
“The Confederate flag, if it were on a public building, I think we would be out there saying this won’t do,” Eldridge explained. “But he does have his free speech right. I’m not inclined to do what we did about the lynching thing.”
According to Kearney, the issue is entirely out of the purview of any Swarthmore government institution given that the flag is technically located in Springfield. The line between the township and the borough cuts directly across Hillborn Avenue, dividing the two communities in the middle of the 700 block.
“I’m not sure how it would go over,” Kearney explained of discussing the matter with a Springfield commissioner. “Springfield is a much bigger entity. I’ve never met with anyone from over there.”
Swarthmore Borough Chief of Police, Brian Craig, agreed.
“I go down that way every day, and I see the flag,” Craig said. “We can’t do anything about that, though. That’s completely Springfield Township. They called us during the shooting incident in 2014, but we have no say here.”
According to an Administrative Assistant from the Springfield Township Administration who requested to remain anonymous, the Township had received no specific complaints on the matter. She explained that based on her memory of similar situations, if the college filed a nuisance complaint, an evaluation might be made of the flag in accordance with the Springfield Township code.
Bledsoe agreed, adding that the college’s ability to act was limited as well.
“I don’t think that Swarthmore College can reach into the borough and make demands of that population as far as this particular case goes,” she explained. “The College couldn’t say: Hey take down your flag because it’s harmful to some of our students, or else! because they don’t have that kind of power. Bubble or not. It’s incredible how powerless that makes me feel to say. This incredibly painful, hurtful thing happened again, and there’s nothing concrete that can be done. I hate that.”
Bledsoe explained that a reasonable course of action might be promoting dialogue about the relationship between the borough and the college.
“I think why not have a “community” conversation, or a town hall, about how racism in all its many forms is displayed in Swarthmore College and borough?” Bledsoe explained. “The college likes dialogue, right? I am honestly skeptical, though, that this would ever happen because folks don’t wanna believe or acknowledge that Swarthmore can be an openly racist place, but it is not exempt from the same socializations that are in the rest of the country, and calling them out is a good first step in dissolving the harmful erasures of the Swarthmore ‘bubble.’”
“The thing I think people forget and don’t realize living it out here is that there is no bubble,” he explained. “I think that is a pleasant illusion that we live in a bubble that especially the students can indulge because you can dive into your studies and the social life that you’re creating but there is no bubble here because suddenly something erupts here and it could be happening out there because it’s related to what out there is. I wish I could be in a bubble sometimes…It’s an illusion that we indulge. If we actually had honest conversations about this we could help each other grow up more and become more informed.”
Stellfox explained that if approached, he would be willing to discuss his decision to hang the flag.
“If it makes them uncomfortable that is not my intention. They can say that if they so choose to, but really they have no ability to cause me to change. If they choose to tell me they are offended by it, I will tell them this is my freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” he explained. “I believe that misconceptions behind it have caused ill feelings toward it, and yes, I know that there are people who have an ill feeling toward it…They have a right to their opinion as much as I have a right to mine.”