Confederate Flag in Dorm Roils Bryn Mawr Campus

October 5, 2014

By Susan Snyder at

Two students at Bryn Mawr College tacked up a Confederate flag in their dormitory hall and taped a “Mason-Dixon line” across the floor – a move they said was merely a display of their Southern pride.

But that display sent the small Main Line women’s college into an uproar, with cries of protest from the student NAACP group and others, who called the items symbols of white supremacy, slavery, and hate.

“I shouldn’t have to walk past a Confederate flag on the way to my Black American Sociological Perspectives class, where we literally watch videos and learn about how that flag represents hatred and the lynching of people that look like me,” said Bryn Mawr senior Allegra Tomassa Massaro, president of the NAACP, Tri-College Chapter. “That should not be part of my college experience.”

The Bryn Mawr administration, through student leaders, asked the students to remove the items from the hall Sept. 12, the day they learned of it. But the controversy continued after the students then hung the flag in their room at Radnor dorm, visible from their window that looks out on the college center.

The college said the students removed the flag from campus several days later as pressure mounted, following a tense campus meeting.

“Our intention was never to cause the pain the community is currently suffering,” Rachel Hager, a senior from Bellaire, Texas, and Vanessa Felso, a senior from Alpharetta, Ga., wrote to their hallmates Sept. 18.

“We apologize for hanging an object seen as a symbol of hate for many and for the subsequent divide and suffering of the Bryn Mawr community.”

Hager and Felso, both on the college rowing team, did not respond to requests for comment.

As the controversy unfolded, the administration in an e-mail urged professors to go easy on students who were tardy or late with assignments because of the stress of the situation. More than 500 students and faculty from Bryn Mawr and several other local colleges subsequently held a demonstration – joined by the president and members of the board of trustees – in a collective stand against racism and acknowledgment that the campus is committed to improving.

Signs – “It’s hate not heritage,” “Ignorance is not an Excuse,” “Intolerance is not Welcome Here” – still hang in dorm room windows.

Bryn Mawr has created a committee to explore how to better deal with issues of racial intolerance and diversity.

“This has certainly been an event that has wounded our community,” president Kimberly Wright Cassidy said in a telephone interview, “but I think it’s also going to make it stronger.”

The Confederate flag has long been a controversial symbol, still hailed by some in the South as a sign of heritage and ancestry but also largely associated with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups and support of slavery. South Carolina still flies the flag on statehouse grounds. For decades, fans at the University of Mississippi waved thousands of the flags at football games until the symbol was effectively banned nearly two decades ago. California last month prohibited state government agencies from selling or displaying the flags.

Some students were critical of Bryn Mawr for not ordering the flag off campus more swiftly.

“When the administration is silent . . . what they are doing is condoning that behavior,” Massaro said.

According to officials from both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Bryn Mawr – as a private college – could prohibit students from hanging a Confederate flag in their room.

But that stance could have been dicey for Bryn Mawr, a liberal campus that champions free speech and free expression and allows students to work out most campus conflicts on their own.

Cassidy said the administration preferred “to empower the students to make the right decision.”

Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the college seems to have handled the situation as best as could be expected.

“The way it worked out seems like the most reasonable way to work out these kinds of problems – to talk to students directly and help them understand what this means to other people,” he said.

But Hager and Felso’s apology did little to ease some students’ concerns.

“I didn’t hear any sort of remorse,” said Olivia Porte, 17, a freshman art history major from Boston, who talked with Hager and Felso. Porte said she chose not to join Hager and Felso on the rowing team because of the incident.

Felso told Porte that she wasn’t aware the flag was visible from her room and had moved it.

“I’ll additionally keep my blinds closed for a while, in order that I can better communicate my respect for my fellow students and my commitment to making others feel safe at this home away from home,” Felso wrote in an e-mail to Porte.

The college, Cassidy said, is still evaluating whether the act violated Bryn Mawr’s honor code. She declined to comment on any potential disciplinary consequences.

Massaro, an urban-planning major from Merion, said dozens of students from Radnor dorm have signed a petition, asking that Hager and Felso be removed from the dorm. Cassidy said she’d rather find a way for the students to remain in the hall and grow from the experience.

Lauren Buckheit, 21, a senior political science major and hall adviser at Radnor, said students are trying to move forward.

“I was impressed that so much of the community was willing to come together,” she said. “It kind of reminds me why I love Bryn Mawr.”

Buckheit said she didn’t sign the petition because she is a hall leader, but she disagreed with the students’ hanging of the flag. She is from the South herself, but would never have considered such a move. She has a poster of Jack Daniels in her room to remind her of home, she said.

“If you really do your research on the flag, there is no way to say it is anything other than a symbol of hate,” said Buckheit, of Nashville.

Sarah Awad, 19, a sophomore also from Nashville, said she understood the initial confusion. She grew up seeing Confederate flags hanging on houses.

“It was definitely a learning curve for me to recognize that it is very, very negative to a lot of people and it is something that is used today as a very racist symbol,” said Awad, a psychology major, who has a Tennessee state flag in her room. “The biggest problem is that the people who hung it were not receptive to those who were telling them ‘that’s not a good symbol.’ ”

Schools: Bryn Mawr College