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Is North Carolina's flag bad?
It's been around since 1885. It's not awful. But it's not memorable, either. So, what do you do about that? Anything?
Yesterday at lunch, I did a totally normal thing. I watched two North Carolina State students launch into a well-researched and passionate argument about why the state flag is sorta bad, and why we should get a new one.
I’m not being mean here. This was normal (for me). It was also extremely relevant to my interests. I can genuinely say: I had not thought much about the flag before then. I mean, I see it quite a bit, but it sorta floats in and out of my consciousness. As in: It’s not bad, but it’s not great. It just sort of… is.
Adam Fleischer and Wyat Hamilton have given the state flag a lot of thought. Yesterday, the State Archives had them give an online presentation about why the flag is so meh, and what they plan to do about it.
To start at the very beginning, most states didn’t have an official flag before the Civil War. It was only a month after North Carolina joined the Confederacy that it came up with its first flag. One original proposal called for “a blue field with a white V thereon, and a star, incircling which shall be the words 'Surgit astrum, May 20th, 1775.” (Surgit astrum is Latin for “A star rises.”) The general design looks like the flag of today, except that the colors are in the wrong place, and both of the dates on it contain May 20th. The first, 1775, was the date that North Carolinians declared their independence from Britain. The second, 1861, was the date that North Carolina seceded from the Union.
That flag sort of existed, but wasn’t much of A Thing. That is, until 1885. In my research, I found that a former Confederate soldier (who, for a time, owned what became the Charlotte Observer) named Johnstone Jones introduced a bill that created the current flag. The People’s Press of Salem proclaimed it to be “a piece of foolishness.” The Raleigh News & Observer said the old flag was just fine “and we see no reason for changing it.” Most people didn’t seem to care. The bill passed in March of 1885 with fairly little debate or fanfare.
That flag is basically the same one we use today, with a twist! Adam and Wyat noted that the state actually changed the flag in 1991. Seemingly everybody missed this! Including me! In that year, a new law explicitly banned commas in the two dates on the flag, which since 1885 have been the signing dates of the 1775 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (which nobody’s ever found!) and the 1776 Halifax Resolves (definitely real, but from a smaller media market so people don’t talk about it as much!). Lawmakers also made the blue part bigger so the letters are easier to read. So let that be some trivia for you: Pre-1991 North Carolina flags may have commas. Post-1991 flags—the New Coke of state banners—do not.
But! Adam and Wyat went on to mention that any text on flags is bad. Flags are supposed to be seen from a distance whilst flapping in the wind, which makes it hard to read the words on them. In fact, the goal of any flag, they say, is to be uncomplicated. Vexillologists (people who study flags!) often adhere to five principles of flag design, as stated on their national association’s website:
Keep It Simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
Use Meaningful Symbolism. The flag's images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.
Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set.
No Lettering or Seals. Never use writing of any kind or an organization's seal.
Be Distinctive or Be Related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.
As Adam and Wyat noted, North Carolina’s flag fails most of these tests. For one thing, text is bad. But you know what you get if you remove the text and flip the red and white? TEXAS’S FLAG. And let me tell you, them rootin’-tootin’ Texans love their damn flag. This also violates the fifth principle, which is that flags should be starkly unique or purposely familiar. I can tell you that Texas certainly would not like you to think another state is Texas-like. even though we have better barbecue. Conversely, if you confuse Maryland’s flag with any other flag, then you’ve been staring at too many Magic Eyes.
Adam and Wyat—rising juniors who majoring in civil engineering—stuck mostly to design principles and the notion of current state pride. But I want to pause here and point out, again, that North Carolina’s first flag was conjured up during the Civil War and its current flag was created in the decade after the end of Reconstruction. What that means is, well, a little hazy. The North Carolina state flag is not flagrantly Confederate like Mississippi and Georgia’s old flags, which once featured versions of the Confederate Battle Flag. Still, the design and creators do have Confederate roots, which some media reports alluded to in the wake of South Carolina’s removal of the Confederate flag from its capitol grounds in 2015. Some people pointed out that the white star on the blue background resembles the Bonnie Blue flag, which became the unofficial Confederate national flag for a time. Its design also, sort of, maybe, resembles the Stars and Bars, which were allegedly, maybe, designed by a North Carolinian. In any event, the evidence seems to be circumstantial—nobody blatantly wrote anything in an official capacity that said “Hey, we should have a flag that reminds people of the Confederacy.” Or, if they did, that writing is hard to find today. Hence, a 1914 state historical commission pamphlet talks a lot about the specifications of the flag’s design and the significance of the dates, but doesn’t mention what the colors or design are meant to represent.
Let me take another slight detour here. Before now, I never considered our state flag to be graphically problematic. But county seals? Hoo boy, that’s a different story. Let me give you some examples. Here’s Stanly County’s seal, which brings some strong “dudes rock” vibes:
Hyde County’s outline, combined with its lakes, makes it look like a spooky ghost:
And then we come to Hoke County!
Hoke County’s seal flat-out says SEAL on it. I did contact some folks there to ask about the history of this, and never heard back. But the difference between flags and seals is this: County seals are used as official stamps of approval on things like documents. Apparently, if you wanted people to know that the seal was a real seal, it helped to write “SEAL” on it. It’s sort of like the FBI guys who show up to a crime scene in FBI hats. I mean, there’s no mistaking who they’re with (unless it’s an old guy at the beach and he bought the hat at Wings, in which case he’s a different type of inspector altogether).
In the old days, many states just took their official seals, slapped them on a banner, and called it a flag. The vexillologists refer to these as “seals on a bedsheet.” North Carolina’s flag isn’t that, exactly. But it’s not really great either. Even that old pamphlet stated that “for the most part, it has remained unknown and a stranger to the good people of our State.”
So, okay, let’s say you agree that, for whatever reason, North Carolina should get a new flag. What do you change it to?
Adam and Wyat came up with some possible designs which they think might be interesting, but they’re not necessarily ready to stand behind them. One is brand new: A blue banner with a specific North Carolina lighthouse inside of it. The other: A variation of the Guilford Courthouse banner that was carried during the Revolutionary War. They played with a bunch of ideas during their presentation.
Later in the presentation, during the question-and-answer portion, the problem of changing the flag in our modern era became clear. Some people wondered if the Wright flyer could be on a new flag to match North Carolina’s four-decade-old license plates. Others suggested the dogwood flower or the cardinal, the state’s official flower and bird, respectively. Then came the whimsy. Why not a pig? A jug of moonshine? A stock car? If you were open this up to, say, the internet, North Carolina’s new flag would be named Flappy McFlagFlag and will probably end up with Chuck Norris’s face on it.
The great and messy thing about doing stuff like this is that a lot of people have access to Photoshop, and can make a version that they feel is so much better than anybody else’s. This stuff is fun to talk about in a way thatis endlessly fun to browse. But actually doing something about it runs headlong into the slow, sometimes soul-crushing machine of politics, which requires consensus, hearings, and careful deliberation (sometimes). Many a fourth-grade class has had their dreams crushed after their cutesy state symbol projects end being tabled or drastically changed by a legislative committee. For example, a class in Goldsboro’s came up with a bill for an official state berry. Lawmakers changed it so drastically that the students wrote to the governor, asking them to veto their own bill. (You can listen to that story below, or here):
So imagine doing that, but for an official state flag that is supposed to represent a diverse and growing state with 10 million people in it.
Still, making such a huge change can happen, especially when there’s an urgent reason. Mississippi’s old state flag contained the old Confederate Battle Flag. When the movement to replace it became loud enough, the state finally commissioned a new flag in 2020 that’s actually quite lovely: A simple design with a magnolia flower in the middle. And, not all flags in North Carolina are bad. Durham and New Bern have city flags that are both memorable and make the vexillologists happy. (New Bern, in particular, has adopted the same flag as Bern, Switzerland, with one distinct anatomical difference.)
Maybe North Carolina’s flag can get there, too. Adam and Wyat think so, and they’re excited but realistic about what it would take. Their whole plan was hatched in February, and the two students kept going after they were not immediately shot down when they pitched it to a state senator. They’ve already gotten some media attention. It’s too late, they said, to get the flag changed in this legislative session. But there’s always next year. “We’re definitely playing the long game on this issue,” Adam said. After all, you can’t get a 138-year-old flag changed in a day, no matter which way the wind is blowing.