TAMPA — Thirty men stood in a rectangle Saturday near Interstates 75 and 4, each clutching a piece of the Confederate flag. On the back of one man's leather vest, a skull grinned beneath the words: "Southern Discomfort." Below the skull, a patch: "Welcome to the U.S. Now work, pay taxes, and speak English."
At 8 a.m., they hoisted the supersized flag, which weighs about 100 pounds. Dozens cheered and applauded as the flag reached the top of the pole and rippled lazily in the breeze.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans erected the flag on private property, where they are building a $100,000 monument to honor Confederate soldiers. They raised the flag Saturday morning — Flag Day — and took it down in the afternoon. It will soon fly at the site permanently.
Reactions of several African-American onlookers ranged from pragmatic to resigned.
"It's a part of history," said Terrance Jerelds, 28. "You can't move forward until you address the past."
Noah Thomas, 33, said the flag is "just a bit over the top." His ancestors came from North Carolina. He believes they were slaves.
There also was Nelson Winbush, 79, one of a handful of black Sons of Confederate Veterans in Florida. A retired high school assistant principal, Winbush wore a charcoal suit with suspenders and a Confederate flag tie.
"It's a symbol of Southern heritage," Winbush said as the flag ascended the 139-foot pole. "Most people look at it and don't know what the hell they're looking at."
Winbush was 5 when his grandfather, Louis Napoleon Nelson, died in 1934 at age 88. He still remembers some of his grandfather's stories — including one of Union and Confederate soldiers holding clandestine prayer meetings before resuming their battles.
When the shooting started, Winbush said, "He was shooting like everybody else."
Nelson served as a company chaplain and was a bodyguard for E.R. Oldham, a general in the 7th Tennessee Cavalry of the Confederate Army. Oldham's commander, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, earned notoriety after the war as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Joseph Glatthaar, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill historian, has doubts about a black man serving as a chaplain fighting alongside soldiers.
"He would have been a body servant — but that's a slave," said Glatthaar, the author of Forged in Battle: the Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers.
Prejudices against slaves bearing arms ran so deep that it took a recommendation by Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1865 to make black soldiers legal.
Black soldiers did fight for the Confederacy, said Elisabeth Laskin, a Harvard University lecturer. But they were few. Lee's recommendation came so late that only two black companies formed in Richmond before the war ended.
While the Union started signing up freed slaves as soldiers in 1862, the South resisted because to enlist blacks would have run counter to deeply held presumptions underlying the war.
"Are we fighting for this land, or are we fighting to preserve a strict hierarchy, which includes these racial inequalities?" Laskin said.
Winbush said he doesn't care what academia may say. "The Yankees run the media," he said.
At the unfurling of the 30-by-50 foot flag, some at the scene wondered what is to come.
"Of course I am concerned about the image this projects for the Super Bowl and the election," said Donald Hallback, 48, who said he is a friend of Marion Lambert's, the leader of the flag project.
Hallback, who is black, said he doesn't think Lambert is a racist. He came to support the Sons of Confederate Veterans' right to celebrate their culture, he said.
"I can't stop them,'' Hallback said as the group raised the flag. "What I fear is that extremists on both sides will use this to inflame people.''
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.