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Dialogue results in sign coming down

Dialogue results in sign coming down

Dialogue results in sign coming down

This view shows the front of Rumrunne...


At University Plaza, the face of the "Rumrunners Plantation Room" sign with the old Georgia state flags on it was no longer visible Friday. Some observers said the sign appeared to still be there atop the building, but face-down.

An online petition started by a Georgia Southern University student had drawn upwards of 1,800 signatures. Many students and other people objected that the "plantation" name and rebel flags made African-Americans feel unwelcome at Rumrunners & the Plantation Room, a bar and music venue. The duplicated flag represented at the end of crossed swords was actually, from 1956-2001, the Georgia flag, whose largest part was the Confederate battle emblem.

The sign's removal — whether complete at this point or still in progress — reportedly results from conversations that Statesboro Mayor Pro Tem Will Britt, former mayoral candidate Jonathan McCollar and Georgia NAACP State Conference President Francys Johnson had with the business' owner.

"The solution to many problems can just be an open dialogue, and the first dialogue with the owner of the establishment was reaching out to him and beginning that, and this has kind of been the first step," Britt said in a phone interview Friday afternoon.

The Rumrunners owner, identified as Jim Stafford of Savannah, was not located for this story. Britt declined to provide a number, and McCollar said he did not have contact information. Several James Staffords with Savannah addresses turned up in an online search for a phone number.

It was Rumrunners & Plantation Room General Manager Deven Bradford, not Stafford, who was quoted in Tuesday's edition of the GSU student newspaper, The George-Anne, saying that the sign was "not changing." Bradford declined further comment when approached by a Herald reporter Thursday, but when asked, he did identify Stafford as the owner.

"I don't know if those that felt that they were unhappy with it had reached out to Mr. Stafford, but I was able to reach out to Mr. Stafford," Britt said. "We had a very open dialogue and, hopefully, the result is peaceful and has the community moving forward."

Britt also referred to an incident earlier in the week in which the sign and a bench outside the business were vandalized. Between 2:45 and 6:46 a.m. Tuesday, the sign was spray painted in red and "J. Davis" was painted on the bench in black, according to a Statesboro Police Department report. No paint was visible on the sign later Tuesday, but the name was still painted on the bench Friday.

"I think the vandalism that occurred there was deplorable," Britt added. "I hope that those people are found and prosecuted."

Britt's understanding was that the sign would be taken down as a result of the conversations, he said. Russell Keen, Georgia Southern University's vice president for government relations and community engagement, had contacted Britt asking for information on the subject, and Britt said he then started making calls that resulted in the dialogue.

"I did not know until today that the sign was actually down," Britt said. "It was my understanding that that would be the result."

Jonathan McCollar, who would have been Statesboro's first African-American mayor if he had won last fall's runoff with now-Mayor Jan Moore, confirmed his involvement in the sign conversation. The sign coming down was the final agreement "at the end of a few conversations," McCollar said. But the sign, he added, is not the important thing.
Instead, McCollar emphasized, the issue at hand is for people to be able to have an open dialogue, even about race. They should try to empathize and understand one another's viewpoints and sensitivities, he said.

"In another conversation that I did have, I said I don't believe that there's any malice behind the signage," McCollar said. "I just believe that there's a lack of understanding of what the symbol means to a certain group of people, and I think that overall, it's a conversation that Statesboro needs to have. It's time for Statesboro to actually have open dialogue about race or race sensitivity, without anyone throwing up the idea that someone is race-baiting."

He added that Statesboro has greater issues that need to be addressed, such as unemployment, poverty and crime.

"I empathize with the individuals that felt the discrimination that they perceived the sign to represent, but in my opinion we've got bigger issues to address than a flag," McCollar said. "The truth of the matter is, many of the people that wave the flag, there's not a racist bone in their body."

He said he believes many people embrace the Confederate flag because they're proud to be Southerners.

"I've got friends that have the flag on their truck, and I feel that if I needed anything from them, they wouldn't hesitate to help me out," McCollar said.

In a statement to voicemail late Friday afternoon, Johnson, who is a Statesboro-based attorney and minister as well as the state NAACP president, gave a less accepting view of the Confederate battle emblem. But he also described what had happened as a case of dialogue improving the chances that people can work things out.

"That's what happened here. There was an exchange of ideas about what the sign represented and what it didn't represent, and the owners wanted to convey that their intentions are good," Johnson said. "At the same time, they also understand how deeply offensive the battle emblem of the Confederate flag is to a vast majority of people, and so they took it down. So the NAACP is grateful to have played a small part in resolving this, and we look forward to working with all parties concerned to move Georgia forward, move Statesboro forward."

Possibly after the sign had already come down, GSU Dean of Students Patrice Buckner Jackson and GSU Multicultural Student Center Director Dorsey Baldwin met on campus with a group of leaders concerned about it.

Jordin Hall, 20, a senior majoring in psychology, had started the petition, which went online Feb. 11 via www.change.org. She felt that the sign sent a "no blacks allowed" message, especially when combined with the treatment African-American students received at the club, she said in an earlier interview.

About 15 people took part in Friday's on-campus meeting, Hall said. Besides herself, these included the presidents of the Student Government Association and the GSU Chapter of the NAACP, as well as other student leaders.

"We're just trying to see how we can work with racial issues on campus, getting awareness out there, and doing discussion, and maybe doing, like, a mock mediation between the two sides," Hall said.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

 

 

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