The Confederate flag hung from a pole attached to a “barn” for county vehicles and equipment at Flagler County’s Princess Place Preserve, the public park, for weeks. County employees–rangers, public works–came and went daily. They said nothing and did nothing. It belonged to a county volunteer married to a county employee.
Gail Durrance and her husband Stephen have lived rent-free as caretakers of the preserve in a mobile home next to the “barn” for nearly 23 years. The caretaker property is not easily visible from the dirt road wending through the preserve, and it’s delineated by “private residence” and “authorized personnel only” signs. But it’s not invisible. It’s daily frequented by county employees, a hiking trail skirts the parcel, and it remains public property, part of the preserve’s 1,500 acres of protected wilderness and curated parkland that the county refers to as “the crown jewel of Flagler County’s preserves.”
Months ago Gail mail-ordered the Confederate flag after she said she was granted permission to hang it by a county park manager–and had a county employee hang it for her.
“Well, I don’t want to get Frank in trouble,” Gail Durrance said this morning, referring to Frank Barbuti, the Flagler County parks manager, “but we were talking one day, he said, ‘Gail, you can put one up.’ I said, really? I didn’t put it up down there by the Legacy, you know. It’s right up here. He said I could. I asked him. He said you can have one, it’s your heritage, Gail.” The Legacy is a trail. “I just asked permission before I did anything. I had it in there for probably two months.” Why ask permission? “Well, this is county property,” she acknowledged.
“They’ve been up here, several of them have seen it, and they ain’t said nothing,” Durrance continued, referring by name to Mike Dickson, deputy to Heidi Petito, the county’s general services director. “He said nothing about the flag. Nobody said nothing to me, you know?”
Barbuti said today he never gave permission and didn’t know about the flag–had never seen it or noticed it in trips to the preserve. “I personally don’t remember seeing a flag flying up there,” Barbuti said. “I did not give them permission to fly a Confederate flag, that would not happen in my office.” He said he only learned about it today. “Someone had driven up there and saw the flag and complained, and the park ranger brought it to my attention today,” Barbuti said. After that conversation, Barbuti said he made Dickson aware of the issue.
“I know I’ve been around there but I don’t ever remember seeing it, honestly,” Dickson said in early afternoon, shortly after learning about it. “I would have told her that that would have been offensive to a great many people, and that she shouldn’t do it.”
By then, Durrance had removed the flag–not because any county employees told her to, but at the end of a nearly 40-minute interview with a reporter. “I can take it down, I’ll just take it down, the stink down,” she said, walking over to the flag and removing it from its socket. “I’ll take it off that pole, fold it up, keep it, put it in my Bible. I just don’t want to cause no trouble for the county, because you know I’ve been here a long time, it’s a shame that somebody wants to mess with me, you know? I’m not a mean person. I’m a sweet person. I can’t help what happened back in the day.”
She then said what appeared to contradict her claim that she’d gotten explicit permission before. “I know they’re going to want me to take it down,” she said, now acknowledging what she hadn’t for the 40 previous minutes: that the flag could be problematic. “You know they’re going to be on my butt.” Her husband had told her to take it down the day before, when the couple learned that someone had complained.
Several times Durrance had said she could remove the flag from the spot on the barn but wondered where else she could put it–on her golf cart, against the side of the home that’s not visible from the road, in her boat. But by the time she called county offices later in the day, she was apologetic and said she would not be putting it back up.
“We refrain from displaying any offensive materials that would offend any person’s belief. We absolutely did not give anyone permission to display the Confederate flag in any one of our parks,” Petito said. Petito was told of the issue not by Dickson or Barbuti, but by Julie Murphy, the public information officer. By then Barbuti had been to the Durrance home. “Frank had talked to her and had explained to her–at the county we take a stance of providing a positive, productive environment.”
It’s not clear why other employees had not spoken of the flag to supervisors until a visitor spoke to a ranger Monday. “I don’t know what the mindset would be for the employees not to say anything,” Petito said.
That visitor was Ralph Lightfoot, a Palm Coast resident since he retired from IBM in 2004 and a frequent visitor to the preserve: as the former chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, he was there every Creekside Festival, the two-day event, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, that draws thousands. Lightfoot, who is the same age as Durrance–70–was at the preserve Monday because he was preparing for visitors coming from out of town. He was with his wife Agnes, the Realtor, scouting a good place for a cookout at the park. Along the way he said he and his wife thought they saw something through the woods that looked awfully similar to a Confederate flag.
Lightfoot spoke to a ranger about it and asked what was back there. “He told me exactly where the place was, so I went back and went up there and took a look at it,” Lightfoot said. He never went onto the grounds of the mobile home itself, but was close enough to take a couple of pictures that show the flag through the brush, visible enough even from the fence with the “authorized personnel only” signs.
“Whenever I see the flag it’s a reminder of how much lynching occurred here in Florida,” Lightfoot said. “It’s just a reminder of bad things. Nothing good comes out of that whenever I see it. If it’s her own property that’s fine, she can fly whatever she wants. But not on public property, and it is somewhat visible from the road.”
Lightfoot said he doesn’t agree with the idea of the flag as “heritage,” as Durrance described it. “Well, you can have that flag, just fold it up and put it in the same place where you keep the rest of your memorabilia but if you’re living and occupying public space that the public pays for, you don’t have the right to display that flag. It’s divisive. These days we need to come together. It’s like the guys who drive around with that flag in the back of their truck, it’s very divisive. It’s actually a sign a treason.”
Durrance had spoken of those very “guys” to justify her decision to hang the flag. “I have boys that come in here all the time with ‘em on their trucks, bigger than mine,” she said, “they go flying them around in the park, you know what I’m saying?”
She said she was born and raised until age 7 in Birmingham, Ala., before living for years in St. Augustine. Good natured, easy to laugh, affable, she considers herself a “southern girl” and loves her heritage. “It’s just ridiculous, all this petty stuff. It’s something I like to look at, I’m 70, just turned 71, I just like to look at it there, I think of my grandfather and my uncles and all that, you know. I wasn’t raised up to hate nobody,” she said, sitting in the shade from 91-degree heat, in the spot she likes to sit and smoke–and look at the flag.
She calls people who complain about the flag “babies,” and complains about other recent constraints she was well aware of. “They took all of our statues down, yes sir, and I don’t think that’s right,” Durrance said. “They fought the war just like anybody else. And I’ll tell you something else: if it weren’t for slavery, there wouldn’t be black people in this country, you know? I was raised by a lady, and she… her name was Trudy and I loved her to death and she raised me when I was a little kid. She was paid well. She loved all of us. We loved her.”
She muses about other places she could display the flag, but says inside the house isn’t a good place. “It’s not that pretty,” she says of the flag. She concedes she’s on public property. “Yes, but I rent this place, so it’s mine until I leave,” she said. Actually, she doesn’t pay rent, just the electricity. She speaks of the house she just bought in St. Augustine–and also concedes that she couldn’t fly the Confederate flag there, even though it’s private property: it’s controlled by a homeowners’ association, she thinks.
“I just don’t understand it,” she continues. “I talk to a lot of black people down there in the park, I talk to all of them. I don’t hate people, you know? I was in school, and then we got integrated, and they had the white water fountain and the black water fountain. I never quite could understand that. And then the white bathroom, the black bathroom. And then they changed it, and then my father set me down, oh lord, he says, you might have to sit with them in school, you might have to drink water out of the water fountain behind them, because they’re changing all that out, girls, and as a matter of fact I was friends with two or three of them in my class. I liked them, we all used to talk and everything, have lunch together. I didn’t pay no mind to that stuff.”
She speaks of one of the county workers who’s in and out of the barn at the preserve and sees the flag. “There’s a black guy that works here. It doesn’t bother him. He says it was the Dukes of Hazzard.” (The Confederate flag was painted on the roof of the Dodge Charger driven by the two leads of the early 1980s television series.) “I got my American flag too,” Durrance says. “They need to get with the history.”
To Lightfoot, it’s not history. It’s a side of Flagler County that preserves a troubling past, and that seems to have rippling consequences. “It’s Flagler County, and we don’t have any elected black officials in the county,” he said. (The last black official briefly served one term on the Bunnell City Commission, until two years ago. The last county-wide office held by a black official goes back to the middle of the last decade, when Jim Guines was a school board member. The county commission has never had a black member.) “Every time we run one even if they’re qualified, they lose. Flagler County was the last county to integrate the schools, so there’s still a lot of that around. It’s unfortunate that this would even be happening today.”
And there was this: for all his years in Richmond, Va., he said, “I have never been called a nigger. The first time I was called a nigger was right here in Flagler County, after I retired. I lived my entire life in Virginia. I retired, I was 58, 59, and the first time I was called a nigger was right here in Flagler County. I made a turn, I made a mistake on a turn, driving, and this guy, this old guy, hollered out the window, ‘get your head out your ass, nigger.’ Even in Virginia, I didn’t experience that, which was amazing.”
But Lightfoot spoke with relish about what Durrance had hours earlier mourned: the changing of the guard on monument alleys. Just last weekend, Lightfoot’s hometown, Richmond, renamed a major avenue after Arthur Ashe, still the only black man to win Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. The avenue crosses Monument Avenue, which is still lined with the statue of Confederate soldiers–and now a statue of Arthur Ashe among them. “Amazing sight,” Lightfoot said.