History Commission denies Fort Smith request to relocate old flag display

Banners included a “provocative” seven-star Confederate flag

By: - September 8, 2022 6:11 pm

Screenshot of Arkansas History Commission discussing Fort Smith’s request to relocate a flag display on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022

The city of Fort Smith cannot relocate a set of flags, including a Confederate flag, once displayed at a city park, the Arkansas History Commission decided Thursday.

Under a 2021 state law, the city had to ask the commission for a waiver to relocate the flags even though the city removed the flags before passage of the law. Act 1003 prohibits the relocation, vandalization or alteration of a historical monument without first obtaining a waiver from the History Commission.

Fort Smith’s waiver request was the first one considered by the commission since the Arkansas State Capitol and Historical Monument Protection Act became law in April 2021.

The commission voted 2-1 with one abstention, to deny the request. Only four of the commission’s seven members were present. Those voting were three white men and one white woman.

A waiver from the Arkansas History Commission is required if a monument is removed for repairs or preservation purposes for more than 60 days. A waiver is also required for a previously removed monument that’s still in possession of a governmental entity to determine the management of the monument, which could include the donation or public sale of the monument.

Colby Roe, an attorney representing the city, explained during Thursday’s meeting that a display of seven flags was erected at Fort Smith’s Riverfront Park in 2001. The display featured flags flown in the area since the late 17th century, including a Confederate States of America flag that features a circle of seven stars.

Image of flag with seven stars on blue field and red, white and red stripes
The flag in question (Source: Wikipedia)

The flags were removed in April 2020 to be repaired and replaced. Officials with the city’s parks department initially had difficulty procuring a replacement for the Confederate flag because the manufacturer from whom they sought to order the flag didn’t make it anymore, Roe said. They eventually obtained replacement flags. Additionally, city officials were concerned about the historical associations of the Confederate flag.

“Some have issues with those type of imagery, and the city desires not to put the subject display, which includes that flag, back on its property,” Roe said.

Instead, the city proposed replacing the park display with the flags of the six branches of the military, as well as the U.S. flag and donating the old flag display to the Fort Smith Museum of History.

A commission member noted that the application should have contained evidence to substantiate a claim that many people find associations with the Confederacy “emotionally charging and provocative.”

City administrator Carl Geffken offered to obtain those statements from community leaders and church leaders of varying demographic backgrounds, as well as Mayor George McGill, the city’s first African American mayor.

Attorney Joey McCutcheon spoke against the waiver, saying the city “claiming this is for military purposes is an afterthought and a deception” because military flags are already on display at another Fort Smith Park.

“Words are important, but actions are critical,” said McCutcheon. “You’re going to send a message today one way or another about whether you’re serious about preserving and promoting Arkansas cultural heritage.”

McCutcheon filed a lawsuit in June 2021 against the city asserting it violated the Arkansas State Capitol and Historical Protection Act by not replacing the flag display or obtaining a waiver within 60 days.

Sen. Mark Johnson (R-Little Rock), author of Act 1003, said the waiver process was included in the law as a way to address conflicting government interests.

For example, a historical monument may need to be relocated for infrastructure projects like widening a road or repairing a broken water main.

However, “to allow political correctness or anything to be one of those criteria was specifically excluded in the law,” Johnson said.

“There’s a good reason for waivers; none of those reasons were met or anyway brought up by the city of Fort Smith,” he said. “In fact, they have in effect stipulated to the fact that this is ceding to political correctness, so I urge you to deny this request.”

Jim Andrews, general counsel for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, said he did not see a rule that would preclude a denied applicant from submitting another application.

A spokeswoman for the city of Fort Smith said city administrator Geffken will speak with the city board of directors to determine next steps.

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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.