TAMPA — They came from Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and all parts of Florida. They wore images of the Confederate flag on their shirts, purses, hats, bracelets and bikini tops.
On Saturday, Tampa was the epicenter of Dixie.
More than 1,000 people visited the site of one of the largest Confederate flags in the world, at the junction of Interstate 4 and Interstate 75, to celebrate its dedication and watch Confederate re-enactors raise a new 30- by 60-foot battle flag.
During the daylong event, they clapped along to country music and chanted back, "Yes, we will!" Obama-rally style, to the men on stage who fired them up with Southern pride.
"It's not enough to raise the Confederate flag," Georgia pastor John Weaver proclaimed into a microphone. "We must raise Confederates!"
The flag, first raised in June, has divided some members of the community. Many say it stands for slavery and racism, and several Hillsborough County commissioners suggested a compromise. Maybe the Sons of Confederate Veterans could fly an American flag and on special occasions raise the Confederate flag, they said.
"There was no compromise," said Marion Lambert, who owns the land the flag is on. "And as soon as they realized there was no compromise, they shut us off."
On Saturday, visitors filled the field across from the tiny memorial park, where the 139-foot flagpole stands. The project took more than four years and $100,000. It will cost even more over time because they'll have to replace flags as they become tattered, Lambert said.
Several dozen Confederate re-enactors set up canvas tents and talked about ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
The flag isn't about racism, said Robert Wilson, 46, of St. Johns. He said he's sad to see what certain groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, have made it. "We're not here to hate on people," he said. "We're all Americans, and we're equal."
Just after 4 p.m., 34 men slowly marched to the flagpole with the giant flag. When it was a third of the way up, people started cheering and clapping.
"Let 'er fly!" a man yelled.
Carol Grimmer, 65, of Clearwater, decked out in a sequined Confederate-flag vest and cap, snapped a photo through her tears. She has found nine Confederate soldiers in her family.
"They did not die for nothing, because we'll never forget them," she said.
Her daughter, Becky Grimmer, 28, stood nearby in an antebellum-style dress with hoops. In one hand, she held a delicate white lace parasol. In the other, she dabbed tears with a lavender handkerchief.
"The South never smelled so sweet," she said, her eyes on the flag.
Tampa's flag, the third raised through the Flags Across Florida project, won't be the last, said John Adams, the co-chairman of the project. "We'll keep putting them up," he said.
But first, they'll take a short break. It was an exhausting project.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.