Friday, July 12, 2024

Merchants Square store supervisor says Gadsden Flag display is history, not a political statement

"Don't Tread on Me" items sit on display at Everything WILLIAMSBURG. (Tom Davis/ WYDaily).
“Don’t Tread on Me” items sit on display at Everything WILLIAMSBURG. (Tom Davis/ WYDaily).

Tucked in an archway leading into Merchants Square, a large window brightly displays yellow merchandise and the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Inside, the store offers more Gadsden flag items, including mugs, T-shirts and educational brochures.

The original flag design dates back to the American Revolution. In recent years, however, it has come to be associated with the Tea Party political movement. Despite the modern racial and political undertones associated with the Gadsden flag, the store supervisor said it’s not trying to make a political statement with its display.

“It’s a political statement from 1775 not 2018,” said Everything WILLIAMSBURG store supervisor, Heather Paulk.

Everything WILLIAMSBURG is a Colonial Williamsburg retail store located in Merchants Square and is owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, according to Foundation spokesman Joe Straw.

“We’re not trying to make any type of Tea Party political statement. The only Tea Party that we’re interested in is the one from 1773 in Boston and 1774 in Yorktown. We’ve been carrying this merchandise far longer than when the Tea Party movement started in 2009,” Paulk said. “If people are offended by it, I invite them to have a discussion.”

Last year, Colonial Williamsburg outsourced some of its operations to Aramark, a Philadelphia-based food service company. Aramark employs a three-person visual team, who is responsible for Everything WILLIAMSBURG window displays, Paulk said.

The Gadsden Flag merchandise has set on window display alongside “Join, or Die” merchandise since January, and Paulk said the displays change seasonally.

History of the flag

The Gadsden Flag is a historical American Flag with a yellow field depicting a rattlesnake accompanied by the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

The flag is named after American general and politician Christopher Gadsden, who designed the flag in 1775 during the American Revolution.

Like the bald eagle, the Gadsden Flag rattlesnake, began to symbolize American ideals and society, according to a Gadsden Flag handout that sits next to the display items at Everything WILLIAMSBURG.

A controversial symbol

In recent history, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the flag originated in a non-racial context but has since been interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts, according to the commission website.

On Jan. 8 2014, an African American U.S. Postal Service maintenance mechanic in Denver filed a complaint of discrimination to the Postal Service after a coworker repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of a flag with a rattlesnake ready to strike and the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me.”

The coworker continued to wear the cap after management had assured the employee that they would tell the coworker not to.

On Jan. 29 2014, the U.S. Postal Service dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cognizable claim of discrimination.

However on June 20, 2014, the EEOC Office of Federal Operations reversed the Postal Service’s dismissal, determining that the employee had raised a cognizable claim of harassment and ordered the Postal Service to investigate the claim.

The EEOC’s decision made no factual or legal determination on whether discrimination actually occurred, according to the organization’s website.

Over the last decade, the Tea Party has also championed the flag. In April 2010, Tea Party Patriots in Connecticut flew the flag at the state capitol for a week.  

The decision was met with opposition from local lawmakers.

“Generally speaking, most people would agree the top of the Capitol is not the place for partisan political flags,” said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, (D-East Haven), according to the Hartford Courant.

Tea Party Patriots said the flag was a symbol of promoting grass roots activism.

“It’s a nice encapsulation of the American spirit,” Tanya Bachand, then coordinator of the state’s Tea Party Patriots, told the Hartford Courant. “We are a strong-willed, independent people and given the chance, we can flourish.”

Also in 2014, a couple who fatally shot two Las Vegas police officers in June 2014 left a swastika and a “Don’t tread on me” flag on the dead officers, authorities told CBS News.

Colonial Williamsburg reiterated the flag is not meant to be offensive and that it only serves to educate on the history of America.

“The Gadsden Flag was designed by Col. Christopher Gadsden of the Continental Congress in 1775 for use by American naval forces, and it was flown as a motto during the Revolution by the Continental Marines. For years Colonial Williamsburg has offered merchandise bearing the flag’s motif and those of other Revolutionary War-era flags online and at its retail stores,” Straw said.

Troy Jefferson
Troy Jefferson
Troy Jefferson is the city of Williamsburg and James City County reporter for the WYDaily. Jefferson graduated from Michigan State University and the University of Maryland. When he is not writing stories, he enjoys romantic comedies.

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