CUMBERLAND, Md. This city nestled in the gray hills of Western Maryland was once a key railroad hub for the Union army, beset by Confederate raiders. Today, the rebel flag is again stirring trouble.
A high school principal's recent decision to ban the wearing or displaying of the Confederate flag, adopted by some white residents as a symbol of their history, has inflamed an already tense debate over racial sensitivity and freedom of speech.
Deana Bryant allowed her 16-year-old son to wear a shirt emblazoned with the flag to school one day last week in open defiance of the ban. Speaking from behind the grocery counter where she works, Bryant said the shirt is not about racism.
"It's his heritage," she said, her blue eyes flashing.
The same day, Lakeal Ellis, a nurse, kept her three daughters home from Fort Hill High School. Shaken by the escalating tension, they packed their clothes. The black family came here a little more than a year ago from the District hoping to find better schools and a quieter life.
The three girls were getting good grades at the high school. But after enduring racial slurs and harassment, sometimes at the hands of youths with Confederate flags, the Ellis family decided to give up and return to the District of Columbia.
"Everything is over with Cumberland," Ellis said. "It's not okay for my kids."
At Fort Hill, the racial taunts had been going on throughout the school year, but the problems boiled over after a boy made racist remarks to one of Ellis' daughters in the cafeteria line this month, she said. Her daughter and the boy were suspended after an argument. In response, some students started displaying the flag on their clothes and trucks in solidarity with the boy.
The principal banned the display of the flag, but tensions continued to rise. Police stepped up their presence.
"The flag turned into a weapon," said Allegany County Superintendent Bill AuMiller, who met last week with parents and students who supported wearing the flag.
"They have a First Amendment right to wear it," AuMiller said, but using it to harass and intimidate students "crossed the line." He has asked students who display the flag "to voluntarily refrain until things cool down."
At a time when Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has challenged the nation to transcend racial divides, the dispute at Fort Hill High School, named for a small fortification occupied by the Union Army, harks back to the past.
Flag fans often speak of their banner as a reminder of local history, a symbol of rebellion against authority and political correctness, and pride in their rural lifestyle. But one man's symbol of pride is another man's symbol of terror, said Charles Woods, a black leader in Cumberland.
"You talk about that flag, the ugly side of people will rear its head up," he said. "That flag must be removed from school property."
Carl Snowden, civil rights director for the state attorney general's office, has received a complaint from the state and local NAACP and the Ellis family. He said he is closely monitoring the situation in Allegany County.
In January, members of several black and white congregations gathered at Cumberland's First Presbyterian Church for a service to commemorate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The event was warmly received, said John Dillon, First Presbyterian's pastor. Dillon said he believes that racial divisions persist in the wider community.
"I think the vast majority of racism grows in ignorance, fear and poverty," he said. "We've got ignorance, fear and poverty in this community."
In many ways, this isolated spot is more a part of Appalachia than the rest of Maryland. President Lyndon Johnson acknowledged as much with a visit to Fort Hill High School in 1964, during a War on Poverty tour.
He spoke of job creation in a place where about one-quarter of residents were living in poverty. Another third of working men had solid jobs in area glass, rubber and textile plants. Since the factories closed in the 1980s, educational and health care facilities and sprawling state and federal prison complexes have become major employers.
Efforts to draw tourists to local cultural and historic sites have been progressing, but change has been slow in coming.
After Ellis's daughters spoke publicly about their problems at a school board meeting last week, she kept them home from school the next day, worried about their safety.
That day the girls said they saw two men, one with a shaved head, in front of their house taking pictures.
They called the police and their mother at work.
She told them to gather their belongings, that they were leaving. The men taking pictures, Ellis said, were "the straw that broke the camel's back."
She contacted Norma Blacke Bourdeau, president of the local NAACP, and the Rev. Alfred Deas Jr., pastor of Cumberland's historic Metropolitan AME Church, and told them of her decision.
The girls' great-aunt swiftly packed them clothes, and Deas sent a church van to whisk them to the basement of the old church, built by freed slaves in the 19th century.
Police said they were not able to substantiate whether the men outside the Ellis home posed a credible threat. The behavior of the men "was suspicious," Snowden said.
Ellis said she and her children are now resettling in the District and trying to determine how to proceed with their lives.
But the troubles in Allegany, which is more than 90 percent white, reveal deeper divisions that must be addressed, Snowden said.
"This is a time when leadership is very important," he said.
AuMiller said the school system will hold sensitivity training and cultural-awareness programs for middle and high schools.
Deas said that he and other church leaders are also pressing for a community-wide dialogue.
"We have no reason to believe it's not going forward," he said.
For some, the feelings only seem to be hardening.18 comments on this story
Brandon Weir, 17, a masonry student at the county career and technical high school, said he was ordered last Wednesday by school officials to remove a Confederate flag from his truck.
"They said I was making the school look bad," Weir said.
That evening, in front of their home, his father, Keith, helped him put back the Confederate flag, which he flies from the truck along with large American and prisoner-of-war flags.
Keith Weir said that he has raised his children to be respectful of all people but that he is not going to be persuaded by public officials to remove the flag.
"Get her up there, buddy," the elder Weir said. "My flag is gonna fly."