By Barry Amundson
GETTYSBURG, S.D. — South Dakotan Lynn Hart, who is half black and half Native American, said if a black family was crossing through central South Dakota on U.S. Highway 212 in Gettysburg and got stopped by police they would likely feel terrorized.
The patches on the small town’s two police officers have a Confederate flag on them.
Designed by a man from South Carolina in 2009, the patch features the Confederate and American flags intertwined along with a Civil War era cannon replica in a theme that city leaders say reflects the town’s history.
Named after its sister city of Gettysburg, Pa., the town of about 1,200 people was founded in 1883, before statehood, by about 200 Civil War veterans — from both the South and the North — who wanted to start new lives, according to the town’s museum worker and deputy city finance officer, Corey Wannamaker.
Perhaps it was a bit unusual for soldiers from the opposite sides of the war to join up and start a town together, but Wannamaker said her research shows they simply respected each other as soldiers and wanted to come together unified to start a new life.
“It was called the soldiers’ colony or the soldiers’ home and it was mostly just to attract other veterans to come out. Because it was founded by soldiers, that would make other soldiers comfortable to come out here,” Wannamaker said.
The patch, she said, reflects that history, with many descendants of the original founders still living in the city and some of the original founders buried in the town cemeteries.
It in no way reflects any racism, the town leaders say, in light of the controversy over the Confederate flag flying on the South Carolina capitol grounds after nine black people were gunned down by a young man who left behind photos of him draped in the flag.
“It’s was never intended to be a symbol of racism and isn’t today,” said Gettysburg Police Chief Bill Wainman who is one of the two officers who wears the patch on his uniform.
Despite the call by Hart to remove the patch, Wainman said when he brought up the issue to the city council last week they were unanimous in their support of keeping it.
He said they have “no intention” of removing the patch.
Wannamaker said if they do have to take it off, Mayor Bill Wuttke is also concerned about a Civil War monument on the county courthouse grounds which also has a Confederate flag etched into stone on it. It sits next to another monument to other war veterans.
However, Hart, who never noticed the patch on his visits to the town but was told about it from a friend, said he’s not giving up his fight yet.
The Flandreau businessman did have a setback a few weeks ago when after writing a letter to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, he received a response from his office that said it was “a local matter” and the governor had no authority to intervene.
“That’s b.s.,” Hart said.
The Marine Corps veteran believes the patch should go. “It’s embarrassing. It’s just common sense. Why don’t they replace it with the South Dakota flag or the Union flag. We’re Yankees up here, not rebels,” Hart said.
“I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. South Dakota doesn’t need that stuff in our state,” he said.
So what’s next?
The controversy has started a bit of a social media war.
On the Gettysburg police department’s Facebook page, people from throughout the country have been responding with mostly supportive comments. Wainman said he also has received so far about 20 random calls all in support of keeping the patch, too.
The town’s newspaper, the Potter County News, also just started a poll on its website asking if the city should keep the patch, said editor Molly McRoberts. It was about evenly split Tuesday evening.
McRoberts, who is trying to remain neutral on the issue, said she doesn’t have any strong feelings either way on the issue.
She doesn’t think the town’s residents are racist in any way. “Absolutely not,” said the veteran of 17 years at the newspaper.
“I don’t think 25 people in town even knew what it looked like,” she said about the patch before the recent controversy erupted.
“I hate to see all of this attention and that people might think that we out here in the middle of South Dakota are all racists,” she said.
Up until all of this attention, the town, sitting about 20 miles from the Missouri River, was simply known for its fishing and hunting. It’s also like many other smaller towns across rural South Dakota — a farming or ranching community.
The police chief said they “will probably just try to ride out the storm,” with the controversy.
McRoberts, who knows of only one black person — a child — in the town, added, “I guess maybe though we should be more sensitive to what other people think. We haven’t walked in their shoes.”