Originally created 05/14/00

Legacy fuels fight for flag



WAGENER - A red rash of Confederate flags sprinkles the mostly rural road between Wagener and Columbia that Republican Rep. Charles R. Sharpe travels to the Legislature.

On most days, by late afternoon, the flea market vendor outside Pelion on that route, U.S. Highway 302, is sold out of battle flags and Stars and Bars, the first national flag of the Confederacy after seven states seceded.

That wasn't the case six months ago when the legislative session opened in the shadow of the NAACP's economic sanctions against South Carolina, designed to force a Rebel banner off its Statehouse dome.

On Tuesday, the flags were validation for the stand Mr. Sharpe planned to take that day. The House of Representatives was debating a Senate compromise to remove the flag and put a more historically accurate version at a monument to Confederate soldiers on the Capitol grounds.

He drove his green pickup past protesters holding star-crossed banners at each entrance to the lawmakers' underground parking garage, sending a silent Rebel yell.

On Mr. Sharpe's desk that morning was a foot-high stack of messages, mostly urging him to stay the course.

But Mr. Sharpe wouldn't have considered giving up. For one thing, if he voted to take the flag down, even under international pressure, he might as well turn the other way on U.S. 302 and keep going. He couldn't go home again.

Home is 400 acres, bought back in pieces from various heirs of land that once belonged to the Garvin family that Mr. Sharpe married into. The walk from his own house to his in-laws' is short, along the edge of a pond and past the charred timbers of a gristmill.

The mill the Garvins operated from the early 1800s was burned by Yankee troops at the end of the Civil War. The most recent mill, in disrepair, also caught fire a few years ago when nearby overgrowth was being burned.

Jacob Perron Garvin, 87, the last in the family to grind cornmeal and grits, can't see those ruins from his front porch. But he can look up the hill and see where his father was born in 1846. He can see three giant sycamore trees that shaded the house where he was born to the 68-year-old Confederate veteran and his 40-year-old second wife.

The sycamores now shade the house where he lives with Evelyn, his wife of 61 years - long enough that he says, "I won't run her off now." They grew up within half a mile of each other. She tends the flowers in front, like her mother and grandmother before her. Out back, he grows sweet corn, squash, beans, potatoes and melons for their table, as men in his family always did.

Perron Garvin was sitting on the porch with his wife several years ago when some men stopped to ask directions. As country folk do, they "got to talkin'ƒ" and disclosed they were in the Barnard E. Bee Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"How many sons do you have who are true sons?" Mrs. Garvin asked, meaning not grandsons or even further removed.

None, they told her.

"There sits one," she said.

The SCV calls them "real sons." Few are living.

Perron Garvin wishes now that he'd asked more questions about the war that was half a century past when he was born. His father, Jacob Aron Garvin, was only 16 when he enlisted in the Confederate Army at Charleston, hoping to fight with his brother, James Carson Garvin. But he was sent to Virginia instead.

"He never talked much about the war," Perron Garvin said. "He talked more about the hardship after. He told me `the Yankees came through this part of the country and tore up everything.' The main thing he taught me was not to waste food. He knew what it was to be hungry."

The family, which had been self-reliant, "couldn't even get salt for the table," he said. They'd always raised hogs and cured the meat on a table, and after the war, they scraped that table and boiled the scrapings to collect the salt residue, he said.

While the war itself was not discussed much in the Garvin home, the values his father believed had led to it were distinctively passed on.

And he has always lived amid reminders. His father and uncle are buried in a family cemetery on a nearby hill, ringed by barbed wire after cows tore down other fences to find shade under an ancient tree over the graves. His grandfather is buried in the woods between two other people.

"He had two slaves he thought a lot of, and when one of them died and was buried out there, he said that's where he'd be buried, too," said Mr. Sharpe, telling the story he's heard dozens of times. "So he was buried by the one slave, and when the other one died, he was put on the other side."

Some family members say it was two wives, not slaves.

Either way, Perron Garvin and his wife marked the graves with pieces of millstone. Later they added coping that was about to be discarded from the grave of another Garvin at nearby Bethcar Church.

That is the legacy Mr. Sharpe has shared since he married Linda Garvin, now Aiken County treasurer. She is related to at least 10 of the 68 men and boys who left the Wagener community to fight for the South.

It is an irony for one of the Legislature's most avid heritage devotees that his own Confederate ancestry is more hazy, but Mr. Sharpe knows that 47 Spradleys, on his mother's side of the family, fought in the war. His father's side is still being traced. The bodies are buried in Kershaw County, where the family sharecropped.

LILLIE SPRADLEY SHARPE, 79, lives amid scented wisteria in a clearing on her son's property - not far from the pond where he's building a new house himself, using skills acquired in construction years ago. She keeps a garden, too - peas, beans, squash, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets and radishes - "because I have to have me a garden."

There are other spots to be cleared as each family member decides to live on the land near one another - "a Southern thing," says Mr. Sharpe, who likes family close by. At least one clearing is ringed with deer stands, and the trees at its edge were planted for appeal to deer and wild turkeys.

Mr. Sharpe plants mainly hay.

Underlying it all is a love for the land, but old-fashioned Southern values go beyond that base. When his older daughter married last year, it was after her fiance asked Mr. Sharpe for her hand.

The cars are newer, the trappings modern, and there is a swimming pool. Young Randy Sharpe goes to his fishing and hunting spots on an all-terrain vehicle. But the Sharpes and Garvins live in many ways as their families always did, and it is that definition of self that Mr. Sharpe believes the Confederate flag embodies.

Much of it goes back to his grandfather's farm near Edmond, where he often spent summers growing up, plowing behind a blind mule and harvesting wisdom.

"He told me, `Son, don't sling mud, or it will dry up and blow back on you.' I try to remember that in my campaigns."

When his father, the Rev. J.C. Sharpe, was called to preach, he went to Berlin Baptist Church between Pelion and Wagener. Mr. Sharpe and his wife are members there now. Later he was at Rocky Grove near Salley, where Mr. Sharpe graduated from high school, and still later at Hilda's First Baptist Church.

In 1979, when Mr. Sharpe moved back to Aiken County after farming nine years in Georgia, he got involved with Future Farmers of America in local schools.

"I noticed the schools weren't teaching South Carolina history the way it was taught to me," he said. "They were not teaching the things people ought to remember."

That concern led him to the Heritage Preservation Association, which donates books on Southern culture and history to schools, and to a long friendship with Tony Carr of North Augusta, who is active in the group.

Mr. Carr was in the crowd in January at a Southern heritage celebration at the Statehouse when Mr. Sharpe offered his view of what should happen to the Confederate flag.

"We ought to put it on top," he said to thunderous applause, including his tearful friend's.

It flies now below the South Carolina and American flags.

Mr. Sharpe bought the flag with a wind-tattered edge that was on the dome that day.

Despite harsh rhetoric toward the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for vilifying the flag, he said as last week's House debate was about to begin, "The NAACP really did us a favor. This has made a lot of people remember who they are and what they come from. As the boycott got stronger, people who didn't really care about the flag before started getting mad about South Carolinians being told what to do. The flag was barely visible on the dome. Now it's everywhere."

HE WALKED INTO the House chamber smiling Tuesday, confident after behind-the-scenes talks with colleagues that there would be no compromise.

"I thought it would be within one or two votes, and I knew it could go either way," he said after two torturous days in which the factions tested each other with amendments, most of which failed. "But I thought we had the votes."

When his seat was empty, Mr. Sharpe was often twisting arms in the stairwell outside the House chamber, one place where news reporters are not allowed to follow.

Such clandestine meetings had led to an ironic alliance between black members, who knew the NAACP did not want a Confederate flag anywhere on the Statehouse grounds, and 23 hardline whites, who wanted to keep it on the dome. Both could achieve their goals only by voting against the Senate compromise.

In the end, five people the group had counted on - two of them black - changed their minds. Even with them, Mr. Sharpe's side would have lost by two votes.

One strategy was to divide the question, voting point by point on various sections of the bill, possibly confusing House members who were tired after 12 hours in session with no meal breaks.

"But we waited too long," Mr. Sharpe said. Debate had been limited by then, and House rules prevented such changes.

"At the end, the speaker (David Wilkins, R-Greenville) was working his side, and I was working mine, and I knew we were down to the wire," he said.

Republican Majority Leader Rick Quinn of Irmo also was soliciting votes for the compromise, to some colleagues' dismay. Several weeks ago, it was Mr. Quinn who persuaded about 40 House members to sign a pledge that they would refuse even to discuss taking down the flag until the NAACP boycott was lifted.

Mr. Sharpe found himself trying to figure out how to explain what had happened to his father-in-law, who asked, "Why did you say take it down?"

He shook his head.

"We didn't," he said. "They did."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.