Delaware town holding Christmas party at controversial museum that flies Confederate flag

The Confederate flag and monument at the Marvel Carriage Museum. (WHYY file)

The Confederate flag and monument at the Marvel Carriage Museum. (WHYY file)

The municipality of Georgetown, Delaware, has been embroiled in controversy for several months after giving a nearly $25,000 grant to a museum that flies a Confederate battle flag.

Local NAACP leaders and civil rights groups have excoriated the town council, which violated the state’s open meetings law and its own rules for giving grants. The director of the state Democratic Party called the July grant to the Marvel Carriage Museum “disturbing.”

But council members, led by former town clerk Angela Townsend, shrugged off the calls of racism and insensitivity. They said the money — first approved in July and then reaffirmed in September after the violations were exposed — would help the museum pay for repairs unrelated to the outdoor granite Confederate monument and flag.

Now, with emotions still high, they’re holding a party there.

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The town’s approximately 50 employees and their guests will be dining, dancing, and toasting each other at the Marvel museum on Friday night during the town’s annual Christmas bash.

Coby Owens, a community coordinator for the Delaware NAACP, called it yet another inflammatory move.

“I’m extremely disappointed that they continue not only to really double down on the fact that they’re supporting white supremacy and supporting the Confederacy, but also they continue to push for engagement there,’’ said Owens, who along with other NAACP members and civil rights advocates have protested vehemently at recent council meetings.

Coby Owens of the NAACP says Georgetown protested the grant atone recent meeting. He says the town is now doubling down on ‘white supremacy.’ (Town of Georgetown)

“It seems as though they’re putting other priorities of the city on the back burner in order to make a political stance. And, you know, they think this is going to win them brownie points, but it’s not. It’s upsetting a lot of people. And it’s also a slap in the face for the Black and brown people who live in Georgetown,” Owens said.

Black residents comprise 15% and Latinos make up 40% of Georgetown’s population of 7,300.

Since 2007, the rebel flag has flown above a white 12-foot granite slab dedicated to Confederate soldiers on the grounds of the museum that houses several horse-drawn carriages, some from the 1800s.

For more than a decade, the state gave about $14,400 annually to the Marvel museum through its Grant-In-Aid program. Lawmakers eliminated that funding in 2019, however, because of concerns about the flag and monument.

So this year, the museum turned to the town for money.

‘Instead of fixing problems, we’re creating more problems’

Councilwoman Townsend dismissed the questions and complaints about holding the party at the now-controversial museum that’s run by the Georgetown Historical Society.

“I don’t want to stir up anything and I don’t really think it’s newsworthy,” she told WHYY News. “We’ve always had it there.’’

That’s not exactly true.

The holiday party, which is paid for by donations from local companies and other sponsors, was held last year at the Marvel museum’s Barrel Barn – seven months before council awarded the grant. The party also was held at Marvel from 2009 to 2013, town manager Eugene Dvornick said.

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From 2014 to 2019, however, the party was at Mulligan’s Pointe Golf & Community Club, J.D. Shuckers restaurant, and the Sussex County Association of Realtors. No party was held in 2020 because of COVID-19.

When a reporter pointed that out to Townsend, she said this: “I’m back on council. We’re having a party. Prior to this, whenever I planned parties, we always had it at the Marvel museum. That’s why I’m having it there. It’s not sending a message.”

Mayor Bill West, who opposed the grant from the outset, will be out of town that night for a family matter but said that if he were in Georgetown, he wouldn’t attend the party where he’s usually a fixture.

“It’s what the council member wants,’’ West said of Townsend, “and that’s what they get. But they never asked employees what they thought.”

From left to right, council members Angela Townsend, Sue Barlow and Penuel Barrett voted to give the museum nearly $25,000 of taxpayer money. (Town of Georgetown)

West, who became mayor in 2014, said that at the outset of his tenure, he moved the party from the museum at the request of employees who wanted a different setting.

“Employees always told me they wanted a better place to take their wives, take their spouses,’’ West said. “And that’s why we were having it at Mulligan’s.”

By having the party at the museum again, West said Townsend and other supporters of the grant, Sue Barlow and Penuel Barrett, are “throwing it in my face. Instead of fixing problems, to me, we’re creating more problems.’’

Owens agreed. “The voices speaking out against it have been a multiracial coalition of people speaking out against giving money to an organization that wants to fly the Confederate flag,’’ he said.

Owens said foes are already mobilizing to oppose any future grant proposals to the museum.

“We’re going to organize and we’re going to make sure we have the residents of Georgetown out and talking about it leading up to that vote as well,’’ Owens said.

Owens, who lives in Wilmington, also credited West and others for opposing the grant, saying residents and town leaders have “talked about the fact that they have inadequate funding for homelessness, for public safety down there.”

“These same members talk about this, but then vote to cut a check for an organization that’s just going to cause more pain and division.”

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