ORANGEBURG, S.C. — A Confederate flag flies high above a South Carolina restaurant. Some customers hate it, others revere it. But the restaurant’s owner said he can’t do anything about it.
A broad stretch of John C. Calhoun Drive is flanked by two unambiguous landmarks. And each, in its own way, signifies exactly where you are.
On the right, a sign welcoming you to Orangeburg, South Carolina, population roughly 13,000. More than three-quarters is black. On the left, a Confederate flag.
The flag flies atop a pole, right next to the sign for the Edisto River Creamery. Seemingly everyone in Orangeburg has an opinion about the flag at the ice cream shop.
And what does the owner of this restaurant have to say?
“That flag needs to be moved and if there’s any possible way that I can do it, it’s going to be done,” said Tommy Daras, the restaurant’s owner. “Right now, we’re gridlocked.”
To understand why Daras cannot remove the flag you need to know about Maurice Bessinger.
Bessinger was a politician, activist and founder of Maurice’s Piggie Park chain of barbecue restaurants across central South Carolina.
In a 2008 interview with Newsweek, Bessinger showed off his collection of Confederate memorabilia that filled his restaurants.
He was a fierce defender of states’ rights and segregation. In his 2004 autobiography, Bessinger called the Civil Rights Act “unconstitutional” and the Supreme Court ruling that integrated public schools a “really bad” decision.
“I raised the flag out here on the flagpole to protest the taking down of our heritage flag,” Bessinger said in 2000 at the South Carolina state capital.
Maurice Bessinger died in 2014. Of the flags outside his stores, Bessinger wrote, “there they will stay. I will fight on because this is what god wants me to do.”
A year after his death, Tommy Daras and his wife bought the Orangeburg location from Bessinger’s children, but not all of it.
Before Bessinger died, he sold the tiny bit of land surrounding this flagpole, a little more than three-thousandths of an acre, for just five dollars – to the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 842.
“And we’ve been trying ever since to honor, honor the Confederate soldier,” said Buzz Braxton, commander of the group’s eighth brigade and a member of Camp 842. “He put it in the hands of people that he trusted because he loved his Confederate ancestors and his Confederate history just like we do. So, there was nothing sinister.”
Initially, Daras accepted the flag and the nearby marker. But that changed weeks after his grand opening, the group flew a larger flag in the aftermath of the 2015 church shooting in Charleston. Dylann Roof killed nine church members after calling for a race war.
“From that day forward, all hell broke loose for me,” Daras said. “My windows were broken out, by phone was ringing off the hook, my employees were harassed. I was fist-fighting with people in the parking lot. Everyone in town assumed it was my property because it looks like it’s attached to this building.”
Maurice Bessinger’s battle for the flag rages on. Daras has hired a lawyer.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans said the flag will not be removed as long as they’re alive.
The attorney for the ice cream shop’s owners says that corner is zoned for commercial use and the flagpole and marker are should be moved because they’ve violating the zoning rules. The city has rejected that approach. The attorney plans to appeal.
There’s also a question of who actually owns the land. The Daras’ attorney says their land sale records show no exception for the roughly 130-square feet that Bessinger sold to the Sons of Confederate Veterans 10 year earlier. So this could end up in court.