By Paige Gance
Local storeowners are flying the flags of Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute to circumvent a city ordinance that restricts the display of flags on city property.
Under the ordinance passed Sept. 1, only the U.S., Virginia, and not-yet-designed Lexington city flag are allowed on 52 city flagpoles and 24 poles on the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.
The ban has been attacked by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who displayed historical Confederate flags on city flagpoles earlier this year, shortly before Lee-Jackson Day, Jan. 14. It also was the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Sammy Moore, director of the Chamber of Commerce, said city council’s response to the controversy left W&L and VMI flags as collateral damage, affected by the ordinance, even though they were not the objects of criticism.
“It’s a shame,” he said.
Moore said the idea to acquire and fly the schools’ flags came to him on a morning run, weeks before the flag ordinance had passed. “I could see which way it was going,” he said.
W&L’s Homecoming Weekend was Sept. 30 through Oct. 2. It was the first time since 1976 that the flags weren’t flown.
“It was weird to see the [W&L] flags absent during Homecoming,” said Lucia Owens, owner of Sunday’s Child on Washington Street.
W&L and the VMI Alumni Association donated the flags to the Lexington Chamber of Commerce in time for VMI’s Parents Weekend Oct. 14-16. The business owners flew their W&L flags for the first time on Parents Weekend, Oct. 28-30.
“We are very pleased that many of the community’s merchants have chosen to fly our flag and VMI’s flags during these weekends,” said Jeff Hanna, a W&L spokesman. “It demonstrates to visitors what we already know—that the community values the presence of our two institutions, just as we value our relationships with the community.”
On a first-come, first-served basis, downtown business owners picked up the free flags—41 from W&L and 41 from VMI. The roughly 30-inch by 48-inch flags came with five-foot poles, and the chamber has extra flags available, although the leftovers are a bit tattered.
Moore wrote a letter to business owners, asking them to fly the flags only on special weekends designated by the schools. Each school has about nine or 10 such weekends per year.
W&L Parents Weekend is bigger than Christmas for Lexington, Moore said. “The flags are a way to show appreciation to the schools, our economic twin engines,” he said.
By displaying the flags on businesses’ property, the once symmetrical presentation has been lost. The poles aren’t the same height, and awnings can block views of the flags.
Donna McGowan, manager at Walkabout Outfitters, said she prefers the flags on storefronts. “They’re more noticeable,” she said. “It makes the street prettier.”