Float with Confederate flag in Whatcom Old Settlers parade sparks concern

Four perspectives on the Confederate flag

Four people explain why they are passionate enough about the Confederate flag to protest either its removal or its position on the S.C. State House grounds.
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Four people explain why they are passionate enough about the Confederate flag to protest either its removal or its position on the S.C. State House grounds.

A Confederate battle flag included on a float at the end of the grand parade associated with the Whatcom County Old Settlers Picnic in Ferndale sparked concern on social media this week.

A video with a Facebook post by the Whatcom County Old Settlers Association shows a red flag with a blue diagonal cross and white stars hanging from the back of a float Saturday, July 27. The float, pulled by a vintage truck, also had numerous American and Prisoner of War flags displayed on it.

“Olson crew bring up the end,” the post with the video read.

A comment on the post pointed out the flag and asked, “How do you think the many children of color watching your float today felt about that?”

A reply from Heather Olson Wiseman said, “We didn’t know someone had put that on there until you mentioned it. Believe me there will be a conversation when we find out who. We, as (a) family would not ever disrespect anyone, so we apologize if anyone was offended.”

Wiseman later told The Bellingham Herald that the flag was placed by a young person who thought the flag “looked cool” and had no idea of the significance or implications displaying it would have. She also said the float has been a “positive part of the parade for 43 years.”

“As a family, it does not convey any philosophy we support, so we have spoken with this person about how inappropriate it was,” Wiseman told The Herald. “A bad mistake, but an innocent one, and we have apologized.”

Herald emails and phone calls to the Whatcom County Old Settlers Association were not returned.

City of Ferndale spokesperson Riley Sweeney told The Herald that the association is a non-profit organization that coordinates the Old Settlers weekend. The city only provides logistical support for the event, but it does not review parade floats or set rules for parade entries.

“That said, Ferndale is one of the most demographically diverse cities in Whatcom County and the city fully understands the message that can be sent to our communities of color by flying the Confederate flag,” Sweeney said. “We urge residents to think carefully about what symbols they choose to include and how that will be received by the people around them.

“Ferndale is committed to being a welcoming place for all people; no matter your race, religion, sexual orientation, country of origin or beliefs.”

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Victor Nolet from the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force told The Bellingham Herald that the organization’s board is considering making a statement on the flag being displayed.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, even though the flag has been adopted as a symbol of Southern heritage by organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, some groups have used it as a symbol of slavery and white supremacy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

“Today, the use of the Confederate flag is often controversial,” according to the Anti-Defamation League’s website. “While a number of non-extremists still use the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage or pride, there is growing recognition, especially outside the South, that the symbol is offensive to many Americans.

“However, because of the continued use of the flag by non-extremists, one should not automatically assume that display of the flag is racist or white supremacist in nature.”

According to the Old Settlers Association website, the event has been a Whatcom County tradition for more than 100 years and a highlight of the summer for many residents. The celebration of local history and American heritage includes parades, music, a car show, a community run/walk and a picnic in Pioneer Park.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.