'It's a symbol of racism': Oromocto family stung by presence, defence of Confederate flag at school

A Confederate flag made an appearance at Oromocto High School last week, but the school district says it was not flown by a student.

The flag made an appearance at Oromocto High School last week

Nathaniel Johnson, left, and his father, William, were angered by the presence of the Confederate Flag on OHS grounds this week. (Catherine Harrop/CBC News)

For Nathaniel Johnson, the Confederate flag is a symbol of injustice and ignorance and not something he would expect to see outside Oromocto High School.

That changed when the 17-year-old student was asked last week if he had seen the truck with the Confederate flag in the school parking lot one lunch hour.

A quick survey of Snapchat and he discovered the image: the Confederate flag waving from the back of a red truck.

"At first I was actually surprised, but it made me kind of angry because you wouldn't think that happens, especially in North America or Oromocto, that the Confederate flag would just be flaunted around," Johnson said.

Nathaniel Johnson grabbed this image of the flag outside Oromocto High School. (Nathaniel Johnson/Submitted)

He took a screenshot of the image and sent it to his dad, William Johnson, a basketball coach for the school. Both father and son shared the picture on Facebook.

"It just blew up from there," the younger Johnson said, referring to the heated online discussion that ensued.

A Confederate flag made an appearance at Oromocto High School last week, but the school district says it was not flown by a student. 0:45

"Different individuals just started commenting certain things, like 'Southern pride' and 'the history of the flag doesn't mean anything beside redneck culture.'"

A sticker on the truck's windshield reads "Everything Redneck."

One comment defending the presence of the flag at OHS. (Facebook)

CBC News tried unsuccessfully to reach the driver, who is a recent graduate of the school.

A relative said that the flag was not flown with any racist intentions and the young man "just likes the redneck culture."

A sampling of online comments defending the flag argue any racist undertones or its connection to slavery have been exaggerated and, instead it's a celebration of Southern culture.

When I see it and when it's flaunted in front of me, I get angry.— William Johnson

Some commenters were disgusted to see the flag, while others chided people who "can't take jokes."

The flag has long been a symbol of white supremacy and slavery. A battle flag during the U.S. Civil War, which was fought over slavery, the flag was taken up by the Ku Klux Klan and many other white southerners, including those opposed to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Some of its defenders call it a flag of heritage, but critics say southern heritage is about oppression and hate. South Carolina removed the flag from its statehouse grounds in 2015, relegating it to a museum.

For William Johnson, raising the flag sends a strong message.

Two of the many comments defending the use of the Confederate Flag, which made an appearance at OHS this week. (Facebook)

"It's a symbol of racism to me," he said. "It's similar to the swastika. I don't like it."

"And when I see it and when it's flaunted in front of me, I get angry. It upsets me, and my kids are exposed to that in the school that they go to."

Johnson hopes the incident will raise awareness about the flag's past because, he said, young people do not grasp its impact.

The father of three boys and a girl said it's not something he can just let go.

"I have raised my kids to defend themselves," he said. "We've talked black history in February, but we've always talked about it. It's been a part of their life.

Police have been notified

"They're not only students, they're black students. They're not only men, they're black men. So they need to understand, they just need to know to be aware, so they're stronger each and every day."

His son recalled one other occasion at the school where he saw the flag — on a hat — but Johnson said he has been to his children's schools about once a year over issues of racism since the family moved to New Brunswick in 2001.

An email from the Anglophone West School District said OHS "does not condone any type of activity related to racism" and added police have been notified and the school will be monitoring the parking lot area.

William Johnson, a father of four, said he hopes awareness of the flag's past will come out of this situation. (Catherine Harrop/CBC News)

The district said the incident did not involve an OHS student, but "some students did encounter a person on OHS school property who had this flag on a vehicle."

The school said some teachers used it as a teachable moment to discuss cultural awareness.

Nathanial hopes the incident will change some perspectives.

"I hope people just get a higher knowledge of what the flag actually means and not with how they interpret it," he said, "because you can't change history."

With files from Catherine Harrop