In Columbia, South Carolina, across the street from the state Capitol, sits a basement bar called The Whig. Today, writer Jeremy Borden brings us the story of how the patrons of this beloved dive bar worked to foment the protests that finally brought the Confederate flag down from the statehouse grounds.
Beneath a chandelier’s muted yellow glow, Tom Hall sat sandwiched between a stuffed fox with a flowered crown and an enormous stuffed turkey, reminiscing about his youthful reverence of the Confederate flag.
His drawl cut through the din and darkness of a subterranean bar in Columbia, South Carolina, called The Whig, situated mere steps from the Confederate monument and the South Carolina statehouse. The Whig is — and has been for nearly 11 years — this capital’s breeding ground for anti-establishment types. For Hall and his Whig compatriots, the Confederate flag flying above that monument had been a constantly visible, personal thorn in the bar’s and the city’s front yard.
Whig regulars normally addressed the flag’s presence with a few four-letter words and sighs of exasperation. But this time was different, more poignant.
One of The Whig's mascots, a stuffed turkey.
It was the week beginning on Monday, July 6, 2015. By Friday, the Confederate flag would come down from its prominent 30-foot perch, and its loftier symbolic reign would come to an end. Four weeks earlier, on Wednesday, June 17, a killer had walked into Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and fatally shot nine African-American worshipers at their Wednesday Bible study, including the church’s senior pastor, South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
In the wake of the murders, Hall and others had gathered mournfully at The Whig that same June week to try to digest the event’s enormity. And to make plans. Hall and two others — Emile DeFelice, Hall’s close friend and fellow South Carolina native, and Mari Borghini, an Argentine immigrant — began to stoke local furor. DeFelice described the trio this way: “Old, rich South Carolina,” he said of Hall. “Old, poor South Carolina,” he said of himself. “And a recent immigrant,” he said of Borghini. “Awesome.”
At The Whig, they planned protests they hoped would pressure the state’s leaders to bring down the flag they viewed as as plague on the statehouse grounds. But their plans had been made with some trepidation.
“Do we go for this now while these people are not even cold dead?” Hall asked. “And we all said yeah. Yeah, I'm grieving I don't know them; I've never been to that church. But that (the Confederate flag) was his (the killer’s) Army, that was his uniform. We’re not waiting and not sitting back.”
As Borghini put it, “Why would they not do something about it?”
So Hall, DeFelice and Borghini worked around the clock to plan two anti-flag rallies, images from which were seen around the world. Three days after the shooting, Saturday, June 20, speakers the trio had organized and thousands of people attracted through informal channels and social media poured onto the statehouse grounds on a sweltering day. Borghini wrapped herself in a burned Confederate flag. Steps away from The Whig, the trio encouraged a start of a new South and a Columbia that reflected their values.
Three weeks later, on July 10, 2015, the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse grounds was lowered forever.
The body of slain South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney lies in state.
Protestors on the capitol grounds.
Whig denizens don’t like the word “hipster,” and they’re probably right that the self-righteousness implied doesn’t fit — even if the bar’s detractors detect a whiff of it. The Whig is one of only a few eclectic gathering places in what many complain is Columbia’s often banal college-town existence wrapped in a family and church town’s restrained conservatism.
The bar differs from its stiffer neighbors in more ways than one. The statehouse politics steps away are usually divisive, ugly and superficial. But even many of those bow-tied politicians and operatives sidle up to The Whig’s bar, where the conversation is generally more elevated and congenial.
“They’re not there to get laid and dance,” said Chris Bickel, a longtime regular. “They probably sell more PBR than anything and they’ve got Elvis Costello on the jukebox, but it’s just people who tend to think a little bit more.”
Bickel, a well-known local musician, is typical of the passive-aggressive politics at the Whig — he used to front a band called Confederate Fagg, named so anyone who hired them would know where they stood.
“We purposely tried to book ourselves into fratty places where … we knew we were in enemy territory,” Bickel said. “We would bait them. The music we played was such generic heavy rock, feel good party music it was like the soothing of the savage beast where at the end of the show all these dumb frat guys loved us. They forgot they were angry. We would bring a lot of people together that normally weren’t together. Not to say that movements are being created in The Whig, but it’s a gathering spot for people that maybe are opposed to the status quo.”
Aside from solid bar food, The Whig has become known for its all-things-local evangelism. The bar supports a bevy of progressive causes and organizes festivals and events that draw crowds by the thousands.
Phil Blair, the bar’s co-owner who runs it day-to-day, calls it “alcohol philanthropy.” He wants to do more than sling beer and burgers. “I’m from here,” Blair said. “I have that local chip on my shoulder that we’re trying to catch up to other cities around us.”
The Confederate flag on the bar’s front perch was yet another reminder for Blair and others that Columbia hadn’t yet entered the 21st Century.
Those who inhabit The Whig are usually passionate people who rail against the status quo from the sidelines. Blair’s tweet is what is most remembered about The Whig’s contributions as the flag debate roiled South Carolina and a watchful nation: “Neighbors cleaning up their trashy yard (eye emoji).”
Hall was naturally at the center of the brewing flag backlash because he had spent four years working on a documentary, “Compromised,” about the flag and why it should be taken down.
“(The Whig) was our place of respite and support,” Hall said. “It was kind of like that place where you’d find all the people on your side plotting and being excited.” He added: “All good revolutions occur over a good mug of beer.” This is a historically documented fact, Esquire columnist and author David Wondrich told me.
"Once alcohol comes in, a lot of long held principles seem to slide away a little bit," he said. "The spirit of compromise is on the land."
The haphazard, accidental quality of an unqualified success such as The Whig — its patrons thank the heavens such a place exists in a city known to locals as “Cola” — can make it tough to pin down how, exactly, the place came together.
In 2005, The Whig opened after college friends from their days at the University of South Carolina, Dino Pournaras and Jonathan Robinson, settled on the spot. The place succeeded Rupert’s Blue Dog Café, a chicken-wing place known for all the paper plates stuck to the walls. Sure, it was in a basement, but it was ideally located, not far from USC and, of course, next to the state capitol on Main Street. Nothing much was around then, so the space was cheap. There was plenty of parking and good visibility.
Everyone else was opening places a few blocks away in an area called The Vista. Pournaras didn’t want to do the same thing as everyone else.
“In between the two ends (of Main Street) was kind of sketchy because there was literally nothing open,” Pournaras said. Notably, there were a bunch of weird wig shops around. They added an “h” to the bar’s name — a nod to their political neighbor. Pournaras is now a defense attorney and serves as the bar’s emergency handyman. Robinson maintains a stake in the bar but primarily runs restaurants in Asheville, North Carolina.
Pournaras said the bar’s origins are all more accidental than they seem. “People we knew would come drink,” he said of the early days. “It was very clubhouse-like. If we wanted to have a show, someone would come play a show. We never really struggled. It wasn’t that we were that great at running a business; it’s just that the time was right and we didn’t fuck it up.”
The bar’s decor is equally accidental. Bartender Will Green describes the theme that finally emerged as memento mori, a Latin phrase that describes reflection on mortality. The phase translates to, “Remember that you must die.” Skeletons and various taxidermy animals keep watch. The yellow, backlit jukebox was an original fixture and remains a visual focal point in the cramped space. Pournaras remembers bringing a display of bugs and one deer head to hang on the wall. “We got the chairs from an auction at a mental hospital,” he said. “They were a phenomenal deal.”
Pournaras, who has a chemical engineering degree, had been living in Philadelphia, working at a pharmaceutical company when he decided he wanted to make a change. But he couldn’t open one in Philly, he said, because that city’s liquor laws were “crazy.” Back home in South Carolina, it was easy to open a bar, and the Myrtle Beach native, whose parents own pancake restaurants there, could move closer to family. Bored with his job, he took the leap.
Blair, the other co-owner, has dramatically increased The Whig’s beer selection and refined its food offerings. His strong ties and friendships with the local music community — he has long been a promoter of the area’s tight-knit music scene — have also helped foster The Whig's success. Certainly the attraction is good food and beer, but Blair also thinks that a place that hasn’t changed much also appeals to their kind of crowd. “It’s not that we’re setting ourselves apart," he said. "We’re just not jumping in.” Most bars have flat-screen TVs and bad music, Blair said. The Whig, on the other hand, is known for its 75-cent Taco Tuesdays. People who want that other stuff have to go elsewhere. The Whig’s untraditional progressivism is rooted in that dive bar feel — a measure of comfort for those who go there.
“It’s a vibe that felt comfortable underground,” Hall said. “Hell, it is underground. It is the coolest place in town. It makes you feel proud of Columbia.”
The Whig seemed a natural, if craft beer-soaked, revolutionary headquarters for the trio of unlikely activists and their supporters who hoped to pressure the state’s leaders to furl that flag once and for all.
Protest organizers, from left to right, Tom Hall, Mari Borghini and Emile DeFelice.
Hall is a 48-year-old real-estate title lawyer by trade. By reputation, he is a fast-talking, vinegar-mouthed, eccentric historian and activist.
Hall emphasizes that he can see both sides of the Confederate flag issue. His great, great grandfather, Thomas Wade Moore of Chester, South Carolina, signed the state’s Articles of Secession. Named after Confederate Maj. Tom Brice, a teenage Hall displayed a poster of Robert E. Lee in his room and wore a Confederate cavalry hat during downtime when he went to the Citadel. Back then, he was convinced the flag was nothing more than a reflection of the exclusive Southern badass posse he was destined to join.
If there’s anything that makes Hall bristle, it’s the notion that his progressive tendencies somehow make him less Southern than the next guy.
“I fucking dip. I’m a redneck,” Hall said of being called out by so-called true Southerners. “We’re not different.”
But life experience and a deep dive into history transformed Hall’s view of the flag. It was first placed on the statehouse dome in the 1960s — below the American and South Carolina flags — and decades later, in 2000, on a large flagpole near the front steps. Hall’s historical studies turned into something of an obsession, and he sought to have the flag banished forever.
When activists began to formulate plans for a protest in the wake of the killings at the church known as “Mother Emanuel,” there were no guarantees. The flag had survived its fair share of controversy before. The symbol flown by segregationists and the Ku Klux Klan had come to represent deeply felt ideals for many, mostly white Southerners — such as freedom from oppression and honoring ancestors who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Dishonoring the sacrosanct symbol of Old Dixie was, to those supporters, appalling.
Those who inhabited “North America’s Greatest Dive Bar,” as its owners refer to The Whig, clearly disagreed, although they had not generally been in the business of planning protests.
At least some of those who came to the statehouse flag protest just three days after the June Charleston massacre were Whig regulars who didn’t know the rally’s three organizers. One was Deborah Adedokun, in her early 30s, a patron of The Whig for years and the lead singer in the band Debbie and the Skanks.
Deborah Adedokun at a rally to bring down the Confederate flag.
Adedokun, who is African-American, described living under the flag’s relentless shadow. She would often park at Hunter-Gatherer, a bar on the other side of the statehouse grounds, and walk past the flag to get to The Whig. That “weird uncle,” she said, was always staring down at her.
Living in nearby West Columbia, her brothers were often harassed by police who refused to believe they lived in the mostly white neighborhood. At Adedokun’s private, Christian high school in the area, a controversy erupted when she kissed a white football player. “‘You need to find one of your own kind of dudes,’” she was told.
“It was so fucking horrible,” she said. “I can’t believe I let them walk all over me.”
Adedokun said she saw a similar timidity among Columbia’s African-Americans as a groundswell rose against the flag in the wake of the Charleston shootings.
“There’s a little bit of a lack of leadership, there’s a lack of strength,” she said. “That’s been a running theme since the ’50s. There weren’t enough black leaders leading the movement and it’s for several reasons. Whenever there is one, they usually get murdered. I just want the change and I’m not going to get super bitter about who’s enacting it. I think people in society as a whole don’t want to listen when it’s a bunch of black people screaming.”
Adedokun said the rally three days after the shooting was cathartic. The thousands who poured onto the state capitol grounds were a diverse crowd that was somber and united.
“I have a 4-year-old son — I feel like I need to teach him not to trust anyone,” Adedokun said. “But when I went to that rally, I felt, ‘That’s not the truth.’ There are hundreds of thousands of people who see it too. There’s hope. There are people who are willing to get out there and say something. It was incredibly inspiring.”
One of the first speakers at the rally on the hot Saturday was Whig bartender Green, who is African-American. Usually soft-spoken, Green was a wild card. “I had no idea he would rip off a speech like he did,” Hall said.
Green spoke to a silent crowd: “When companies are thinking about coming here when graduate students are thinking about coming here, the first thing they think, the first thing they hear, is ‘Isn’t that where that flag is?’”
Pro-flag folks on the statehouse grounds.
In his documentary about the statehouse Confederate flag, Hall, like all good Southerners spinning a yarn, starts at the beginning. He connects the dots between South Carolina’s progeny as a slave colony of Barbados and how the state’s leaders were never part of the U.S. mainstream. To know where official South Carolina stands on issues of race, look no further than the Articles of Secession chiseled in marble on the second floor of the statehouse or the racists and killers that controversially dot South Carolina’s statehouse grounds, he argues.
What many don’t understand, Hall told me, is that the Civil War’s terms of surrender were clear. After the war, Gen. Lee and other revered leaders told Southerners not to fly the Confederate flag or others associated with the failed Confederacy. To violate the terms of surrender was dishonorable, he told them. Hall has long delivered an impassioned plea that flying the flag is, in fact, not a Southern tradition rooted in pride for Confederate leaders and soldiers, but instead a symbol of hate co-opted by the political right.
The Monday after the rally, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said that the flag must come down. Students of politics, Hall, DeFelice and Borghini knew they’d won. They met to celebrate in “the vault” at The Whig — a cramped room in back. James Smith, a Democratic state lawmaker, had declared that outside prodding and pressure forced state leaders’ hand. “This got done,” Smith said, “because the people of South Carolina demanded change.”
Today, eight months after the Confederate flag ceased flying outside, The Whig’s owners and patrons continue to issue deliberate, if unorthodox, pinpricks of activism. After design consultants presented to the state’s seven-member Confederate Relic Room and Military Commission an elaborate $5.3 million plan to reverently display the Confederate flag, The Whig’s owner weighed in.
This is what he tweeted: “$5.3 million is a lot of money to hang a Myrtle Beach towel in a museum.”