By Christian Giggenbach
LEWISBURG , WV — Although historical Lewisburg’s abundant landscape of Civil War tales has been well documented, there is one chapter in its war-torn past that’s shrouded in mystery and continues to be embroiled in debate.
Unnoticed by many who live here is a white oval, approximately 6 feet in diameter, high upon the right-hand side wall of the two-story brick building located at 124 W. Washington St. And inside the oval is a red flag with criss-crossed blue bars flying from a post.
Greenbrier County historian Jim Talbert says the rendering is a depiction of a Confederate battle flag that most likely was painted there by a Confederate soldier named D.R. Thomas in 1897. Thomas was a veteran of the 14th Virginia Calvary, Bryan’s Battery.
Deed books show Thomas bought a wood-framed structure on that lot in 1884, but it burned to the ground, like much of downtown Lewisburg, in the great fire of 1897.
“The Civil War was over in 1865, and if he was going to show his loyalty to the Confederacy, then he would have painted a flag on the building out of tradition, but as far as a written record, we don’t have it,” Talbert said. “It’s entirely possible that he could have inherited the flag, but tradition says that D.R. Thomas painted the flag on his building.”
The absence of stars on the flag only adds to the enigma of how it got there in the first place.
“Probably stars were too hard to paint,” Talbert said.
Since 1897, the building has been owned by three different families, Talbert said, and in 1965, two brothers, Edward and Munir Yarid, bought the building. Talbert said there exists only two documented instances mentioning Lewisburg’s not-so secret flag. The definitive, high-tech modern research tool — Google.com — revealed no information when queried about the flag.
In 1957, noted historian Ruth Dayton Woods featured the flag in her book, “Lewisburg Landmarks,” and said the flag was first painted on the building during the Civil War. She also suggested Thomas painted the flag on the side of his new building in 1897. A drawing of the star-less flag is shown beside the article.
“In recent years, the paint had begun to fade, but through the interest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, it was again repainted,” Woods wrote. Talbert was unable to confirm that, although some community members have sketchy recollections of the event. There is no longer a local chapter of the UDC.
In 1968, a photograph of the flag, along with and editorial-styled article, appeared in Charleston’s Sunday Gazette-Mail and was written by William C. Blizzard. Talbert said that was previously the only known published photograph of the flag. Talbert called the flag a “landmark of Lewisburg” that “has been there longer than any other living person.”
“Any political meaning attached to the painting is simply a personal prerogative,” he said. “To my knowledge, it’s always been thought of as nothing more than a tribute to an old soldier.”
Through the years, the building has been a grocery store, quilt store, restaurant and a gallery. It’s now home to a gift shop called Stonehouse Gourmet and is still owned by the Yarid brothers.
“There were no shoe stores in Lewisburg when we bought the building in 1965, so I thought that would be a good shoe store,” Edward Yarid recently told The Register-Herald. “Of course, the flag was already there when we bought the building.”
How a painted flag of this size can go relatively unnoticed in downtown Lewisburg is because of the building next door that was built sometime in the 1930s. There is about a 4-foot gap between the two buildings, and this obscures the flag from most viewpoints in the city.
However, the flag can easily be seen from the front doors of City Hall across the street. The Register-Herald requested comments about the flag from all seven council members, but only three responded. Mayor John Manchester said only two individuals have personally expressed dislike for the flag since he won office four years ago.
“I asked (one of them) if he had contacted the owner of the building directly to begin a dialogue about the flag and what it meant to him ... and he said he had not,” Manchester said. “I told him that would be the proper place to start. The Confederate flag brings out a lot of heartfelt emotions by a lot of people in this area and around the country.”
Council member Beverly White, 55, the lone African-American on city council, said it’s time “to move forward” concerning the flag.
“History has happened. We can’t change that. We must learn from the past and move forward and treat each other as God commands us to do so,” she said. Newly appointed council member Mark Bowe also responded to The Register-Herald’s request.
Aaron Trigg, 25, an African-American and local evangelist, said displaying the Confederate flag shouldn’t automatically brand someone as a “racist.” For him, the flag is not an immediate symbol of racism.
“People use it for various reasons and I can see why generations before me view it as a symbol of hate, but for me personally, I don’t see it that way.”
Although local civil rights leader Joan Browning “despises” the flag, she said it didn’t matter to her if it was painted over.
“The symbol is losing its steam, and in another generation or two it won’t be looked upon in the same manner,” she said.
But members of the Greenbrier County branch of the NAACP have a marked different opinion. President Larry Baxter said the matter will be taken up at this week’s meeting.
“The display of the Confederate flag in downtown Lewisburg should be condemned by all people regardless of color who reside in this community,” he said. “Some will excuse the display as historic significance ... but would we accept it if a Swastika was painted on a building in Lewisburg? I think not.”
Yarid believes the flag is for “public viewing” and is part of the history of Lewisburg. He and his brother have no plans to paint over the flag.
“I think it is a piece of history and it was put there for a purpose, and there’s no reason to disturb it,” Yarid said. “And it should be perpetuated. I don’t see the negative aspects.”