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In an archived official portrait from 2003, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson is seen wearing a red necktie, boasting white stars framed by dark blue stripes.
According to several historians and civil rights advocates, this style of necktie conjures images of the Confederate battle flag. Similar ties can easily be found online, sometimes referred to as a "New Anglo Confederate Flag Men's Necktie."
A similar style of tie is also found advertised online as a "Red Designer Tie With Diagonal Confederate Battle Stars."
The Confederate battle flag is viewed by many as symbol of racism and slavery. At a time in the nation's history when memorials to Confederate leaders are being removed across the country, the 2003 photo raises concerns for community activists.
The citizen-led group Bristol County for Correctional Justice has called for Hodgson's resignation and on Thursday sent a press release regarding the portrait, calling the sheriff an "avowed proud white supremacist."
Hodgson is wearing his sheriff's badge in the 2003 portrait, which accompanies a welcome message "to the official website for the Bristol County Sheriff's Office." Hodgson's message continues, with him describing BCSO's work as contributing "to the betterment of our country."
Howard Graves, senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), compared the image of Hodgson's tie with the image of a "Old South Confederate Necktie" sold for $29.99 on ConfederateShop.com.
"This tie resembles the 'battle flag,' but has been called an 'anglo-Confederate society tie,'" Graves explained in an email. "Many people affiliated with the broader neo-Confederate movement wear that tie either in necktie or bowtie form."
In an interview with WBUR Thursday, Hodgson said he is being criticized for the 17-year-old photo because of his conservative views and his role on President Trump's re-election campaign. The sheriff is on the advisory board of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group recognized by the SPLC as a hate group because of its white supremacist and anti-immigrant messages. He is often scrutinized by the state's more liberal elected officials.
Hodgson vehemently denies any suggestion he's connected with or sympathetic to Confederate causes, calling it an absurd and reckless accusation.
He said his staff and his constituents know what he stands for.
"They know I would not be wearing anything that makes me the poster boy for bigotry," he said.
He said the tie and its colors "represents what it means to be American."
Charles Dew, the Ephraim Williams professor of American history at Williams College, said he didn't immediately recognize the pattern of the red tie with white stars inside blue stripes as a Confederate symbol. Dew, who researches slavery and the Civil War era, said it looks like something that was crafted to show Confederate enthusiasm in a more subtle fashion.
"There's a long history of neo-Confederates in the South sort of cloaking some of what they do in a little bit of obfuscation," Dew said.
Hodgson's spokesperson, Jonathan Darling, said in an email that the sheriff "has never heard of neo-confederates or anglo-Confederate societies or anything like that."
Nina Silber, a professor of history and American studies at Boston University, reviewed the 2003 portrait of Hodgson and said that, without commenting on any motives, she believes the tie is reminiscent of Confederate symbols.
"I do certainly see a similar design motif or pattern between the tie and what people call the Confederate battle flag, which is the most prominent symbol of the Confederacy that we often see," Silber said in an interview. "The pattern is the white stars that are embedded in a blue stripe that's on a red background."
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) agrees with Silber.
Mark Pitcavage is a senior research fellow at the ADL's center on extremism. He said it's impossible to know the intent behind Hodgson's choice of tie, but the design itself is familiar.
"The tie in the photograph seems certainly to be derived from the design of the Confederate flag," Pitcavage said.
The Confederate flag itself, Pitcavage said, is most clearly recognizable in the form of a blue diagonal cross with white stars on a red background.
"This alternative design is more suited for a tie, with its sort of repeating bar, and [it is] also far less in your face than an actual Confederate flag would be displayed on a tie," he said.
Hodgson is widely known for his support of President Trump's hardline stance on immigration and has visited the Trump White House several times. In 2017, Hodgson offered to send inmates from the BCSO facilities to the U.S.-Mexico border to help Trump build his proposed border wall. The sheriff also partners with federal immigration officials in a program that deputizes county officers to perform certain immigration actions. Currently, Hodgson and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are being sued by immigrant detainees over their treatment throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The sheriff is also under investigation for a violent altercation that took place on May 1 between ICE detainees and BCSO staff.
Asked he if would wear the tie now, knowing how the design may be construed, Hodgson said yes, he would.
"It represents the colors of a country that's given me the opportunity to serve," he said.
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