At rural South Carolina flag factory, sadness and pride

By Edward McAllister

LANE, SOUTH CAROLINA (Reuters) - When Margaree Mitchum sees the stars and stripes waving atop a flagpole, she feels more than ordinary patriotism.

"I look at a flag differently now,” she said Tuesday at the Valley Forge Flag factory in Lane, South Carolina, where she has worked for 14 years. “When I started to sew, and I saw them flying, it filled my heart because I’d had my hands on them," she said.

Mitchum, 60, is one of more than 100 employees at Valley Forge’s South Carolina factory, located about 65 miles north of Charleston on a rural back road among cotton and corn fields. The production line was running fast this week, as huge raw bolts of red, white and blue nylon were expertly cut, sewn and stitched into hundreds of American flags per day in advance of the July fourth holiday.

Employees, most of them African-American, were nearing the end of the their nine-and-a-half hour shift in a hot, low-ceilinged warehouse, sitting at sewing machines standing at cutting tables, or adding brass grommets to nearly finished flags.

There was little sign of the landmark change that had occurred outside on Tuesday, beyond the listing chain link fence, in boardrooms of some of America's largest flag manufacturers, including Valley Forge.

The Pennsylvania-based flag company was on Tuesday the first major U.S. flag maker to halt production of the Confederate Flag, following the shooting of nine black churchgoers during a bible study in Charleston last week. Annin Flagmakers and Eder Flag, two more of the largest U.S. flag manufacturers, quickly followed suit, as calls grew to stop production of a flag that has been a divisive symbol in America and a reminder of the South's slave-owning past.

"I wish I had stopped doing it a long time ago," said Scott Liberman, chief executive officer of Valley Forge, a company founded by his great grandfather in 1882 to make burlap bags and flags for the military. Liberman started in customer service for Valley Forge in his twenties, back when his father Michael ran the business.

"If it has become offensive to people, I don't want anything to do with it," he said.

Opposition to the flag, which flies outside the state legislature in Columbia, has spiked in recent days, after pictures surfaced of Dylann Roof, the man charged with the church attack, posing beside the flag. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has called for it to be taken down, and major retail stores have stopped stocking it.

The Confederate flag was not made at the Lane Factory, but for the tight-knit group of workers here, Valley Forge's decision feels like a victory.

"For us, as black people, the Confederate flag shows racism," said Mitchum, office manager at the factory. "Everything has its place and I think it should be taken down."

Mitchum grew up picking cotton for her sharecropper father in South Carolina, a job she can barely bring herself to talk about now that she sits behind a desk with a computer.

Many of the workers here, she said, are related or attend the same church. They are close, bringing in food to share on breaks. And last week’s attack in Charleston hit close to home.

"Everyone here is disturbed,” Mitchum said. “We are praying people, church going people."

Workers at the factory, she said, take pride in what they do. Valley Forge flags have covered coffins of American presidents since John F. Kennedy. And, according to the company website, its flags were flown during the Normandy Beach landings in World War Two.

Now, the workers are proud, too, of their company’s decision to discontinue making a flag many saw as a direct affront to African-Americans.

Mitchum paused when the bell rang for the end of the day’s shift. The walls of her small office shook as workers came and went from the front door down the corridor.

But before leaving for the day, she tried to sum up what the American flag means to her.

"Coming up, I didn't have it good," she said, tears welling up. "When the wind blows, a flag is free, it can go left and right."

(Reporting by Edward McAllister; Editing by Sue Horton)