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."
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