When Austin Smothers and a few others recently decided to place Confederate flags on their pickup trucks to honor the death of a friend, they also raised a few eyebrows.
“We never meant it to be a racist thing to anybody,” said Smothers, a Baraboo High School junior. “We wanted to honor our friend, Joshua Blum, who had just died. We wanted to show we cared for him.”
Blum died Feb. 20 in a crash after the pickup he was driving overturned in Marquette County. Blum’s father, Tim, said his son didn’t wear his seat belt and that’s what killed him. However, a passenger in the truck wore a seat belt and survived.
Smothers said he and the others at Baraboo High School often drove their trucks around the city with the Confederate flag waving in the back.
“That’s why we had the flags on our trucks to his wake and at school,” Smothers said. “I know Josh would’ve wanted us to do it. We don’t hate anybody.”
But Baraboo High School Principal Bill Loss said shortly after the wake and the funeral he began seeing other Confederate flags pop up in the school’s parking lot. He even fielded three calls from parents who were upset by the sight of the flags.
“It was disturbing to see those flags out there,” Loss said. “It was a delicate situation because you had students mourning the loss of their friend, but they were honoring his memory with a long-standing symbol of hatred and slavery.”
Loss said he viewed the Confederate flags as wearing a swastika in front of Jewish people.
“I talked with the students and explained to them the concerns that were raised,” Loss said. “I wanted to make sure our students knew what that flag stood for in the past and what it still carries with it today.”
Loss said after he talked with the students they took the flags down.
“They were cooperative with us,” Loss said. “They understood it was not the right thing to do.”
B.J. Zeman, who graduated from Baraboo High School in 2007, said the Confederate flag means country to him.
“It’s from the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and the General Lee car,” he said. “For me, the flag means fishing and hunting. That’s it. It doesn’t mean I am a racist.”
Jordan Herritz, who graduated from Baraboo High School two years ago, said the Confederate flag was about the South trying to gain independence from the North.
“We never intended for people to think we’re racists because we had these flags on our trucks at Josh’s wake,” he said. “For us, it meant we’re different. We’re rebels.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison History professor Stephan Kantrowitz said the Confederate flag has been adopted by many different people for various reasons.
“At some point in the last half century some people have appropriated the Confederate flag as a way of being defiant or rebellious,” Kantrowitz said. “But those same types of people fail to identify that the flag represents the Confederate Army, who’s success would have allowed slavery in America.”
He said having those flags at someone’s wake was not appropriate.
“That flag represents evil, hatred and bigotry,” he said. “That’s not the way one should memorialize another person.”
Tanner Shelby, a Baraboo High School junior, said he understands Smothers and his friends were grieving the death of their friend, but believes having the Confederate flags on their trucks was not the right thing to do.
“I know they wanted to show respect to Josh, but not that way,” Shelby said. “The Confederate flag has a whole different meaning. It doesn’t have anything to do with Josh dying.”
Shelby’s friend, Alyssa Orseno, also a Baraboo High School junior, said she found it disrespectful to have those flags on their trucks.
“I realize they want to cherish the memories they had with their friend, but having those flags on their trucks wasn’t the way to do it,” she said. “Those flags have nothing to do with love.”