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Roe disagrees as House votes to ban Confederate flags at VA cemeteries

Gary B. Gray • Updated May 20, 2016 at 5:39 PM

The U.S. House on Thursday voted to ban the display of Confederate flags on flagpoles at any Department of Veterans Affairs cemeteries, including Johnson City’s historical Mountain Home National Cemetery.

California Democrat Jared Huffman authored the legislation, saying the flag symbolized “racism, slavery and division.”

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, told the Johnson City Press late Thursday he voted against the ban. He was one of 159 House members who did so. 

“I voted against the Huffman amendment,” Roe said. “The VA’s current policy, which allows the Confederate flag to be displayed on Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day, is appropriate for many families whose ancestors fought and died under the flag. I hope this amendment will be removed before the final version of this bill is considered.”

The House vote was 265-159 to block descendants and others seeking to commemorate veterans of the Confederate States of America from flying the Confederate Battle Flag over mass graves, even on days that flag displays are permitted.

Jeny Walker, Mountain Home National Cemetery director, said the change in policy would not affect Tennesseans or ancestors of confederate soldiers on the Johnson City Veterans Affairs cemetery site.

“We have no Confederate flags flying on any flagpoles, and we do not have any confederates interred here,” Walker said. “We also have no Confederate headstones. Remember, we opened in 1903, and the confederates around here are buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.”

Perhaps 30-40 Confederate flags — the original version, that flew from 1861-1863 — were flying in front of aging headstones at Oak Hill on Friday. Many Southern states have their own days for honoring the Confederate dead. Tennessee’s Confederate Decoration Day is June 3, the birth date of confederate leader Jefferson Davis, though it is not a state holiday. There is no official ceremony held on state or federal grounds, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs website.

Tennessee Sons of Confederate Veterans Director Michael Landree was not available for comment.

Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday in some states in the United States. It gives people a chance to honor and remember the confederate soldiers who died or were wounded during the American Civil War during the 1860s.

Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia continue to observe state holidays on Confederate Memorial Day, mainly in spring and summer. Celebrations vary, from ceremonies to place flags and wreaths on the graves of Confederate soldiers and memorials to church services to re-enactments and displays of Civil War relics. Georgia scratched its state holiday this year.

Mountain Home covers nearly 92 acres and contains the remains of more than 10,000 veterans. The cemetery is located on the grounds of the former Mountain Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

When the Mountain Branch opened, it provided housing, medical care, education, training and employment to Union veterans in the South. Mountain Home is a part of the James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which is affiliated with East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine.

Mountain Home was the ninth, and last, of its kind funded by Congress to care for Union veterans of the Civil War. In 1973, it was transferred to the Veterans Administration and the home cemetery became a national cemetery.

Following a mass shooting last year at a lack South Carolina church, that state’s legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in Columbia.

The House approved amendments last year to block the display and sale of the Confederate flag at national parks but a backlash from Southern Republicans caused GOP leaders to scrap the underlying spending bill.

Email Gary Gray at ggray@johnsoncitypress.com. Like Gary B. Gray on Facebook at www.facebook.com/garybgrayjcp. Follow him on Twitter @ggrayjcpress.

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