Once again the question of Mississippi’s flag has reared an ugly head. One side has implied that anyone who likes the Confederate flag is a racist. The other side has bowed up and said so what if it offends some people, its my heritage. Unfortunately, like so many political issues today, no one seems to be seeking a reasonable middle ground. One of the problems that prevents a resolution is the vitriol spewed from both sides of the issue. It’s like some are more interested in stirring controversy than solving the problem. Comparing the Confederate flag to the flag of ISIS is just as narrow minded as claiming changing the flag is nothing more than an attack on history and heritage.
Unlike many political hot potatoes, there actually is a way to change the Mississippi flag while respecting the state’s great heritage. It is a wonderful heritage that needs to be celebrated in spite of some very bad episodes in the past. I have never seen another place where people are so genuinely friendly and prone to help their neighbors no matter who the are. As a historian, I see an option for Mississippi to change its flag in a way that all views are respected and at the same time take the historical high road.
In looking at the flag controversy an analogy comes to mind. Have you ever gone into the back of your closet and found an old shirt or coat and thought wow that was my favorite but I had forgotten about it. We realize that we have bought a new one but the new one actually is not as nice as the old one. So you pull out the old one and once again enjoy it. That’s sort of how it is with the flag. We have an older, more historic and prettier state flag than the present one. However, because some people who are from outside Mississippi are telling us what we should do, many don’t want to be bossed around and ignore what would have been good to do any way. So why not pull our very attractive old historic flag out of the back of the closet and once again fly it?
The old flag was known as the Magnolia Flag. Its origins date back to 1810, which in its final design flew over Mississippi from just before the Civil War until its use ended after the war. Its elements make it much more historic than a Civil War flag. It is a flag that portrays Mississippi History but lacks any divisive symbols on it.
The flag contains two striking elements. Its canton or the square in the upper inside corner is a dark or royal blue with a single white star in the center. The rest of the flag consists of a white field containing a green magnolia tree in bloom. The flag sometimes had either a red fringe surrounding it or a red border.
The flag’s canton is often referred to as the Bonnie Blue flag which was popular in the South at the beginning the Civil War. But it actually is a flag from the early days of the American Republic. In the first decade of the 1800s, Spain claimed and exercised control over the Territory of West Florida. That territory consisted of what is now south Alabama, South Mississippi and that part of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River. It was the land which was below the 1798 Ellicott Line or 31 degrees. Many United States citizens, however, settled in that area with permission of the Spanish authorities.
In 1810 those settlers rose up against Spanish rule. A Massachusetts newspaper, The Essex Register, reported that on July 4, 1810, the settlements of Baton Rouge and “Bayu Sarah” declared independence from Spain and raised their banner of independence. It was a blue flag with a single white star in its center. However, it was not until September 23 that the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge was occupied and that lone star flag was raised over it. The territory officially declared its independence and became the Republic of West Florida on September 26. The United States quickly annexed the territory after dispatching troops to occupy it. In December 1810, West Florida was divided between the Mississippi and Orleans Territories.
Spain still held onto Mobile with the Spanish garrison at Mobile’s Fort Charlotte refusing to surrender to United States control. In 1812 an expedition of West Florida settlers marched on Mobile and raised their “Standard of independence” near there in December. However, they were unsuccessful and Spain continued to control Mobile until the U.S. military occupied the town in April 1813.
Variation of this “standard of independence” became a symbol of the fight for freedom and independence across the Americas. It flew in the Republic of Texas and still adorns the Texas flag. It became the standard of an ill conceived effort by some along the Gulf coast to attempt to annex Spanish Cuba to the U.S. That attempt was reported in a Savannah, Georgia, newspaper as “the Cuban Excitement in the South West.” The article further reported that the proposed expedition’s flag of a “single star and stripes” was unfurled at Pass Christian, Mississippi, in July 1851.
The single star on a blue field apparently became a symbol of freedom and independence across all of the Americas. The flag of Chile, a white star on a blue background with red and white stripes, dates dates to the Chilean revolution against Spain in 1817. That was only five years after the last use of the Lone Star flag in West Florida. Even today a single white star is found, though on a red background, on the flags of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
On January 9, 1861, Mississippi seceded from the Union and became the Republic of Mississippi. Not having a flag the old flag of West Florida independence was unfurled at the state capital. It took the name of the Bonnie Blue Flag. It was quickly realized that Mississippi needed an official flag and a committee was organized to design one. The flag which was proposed and adopted was described as “A flag of white ground, a magnolia tree in the center, a blue field in the upper left hand corner with a white star in the center..”. That flag, which had incorporated the flag of West Florida, became known as the Magnolia Flag. It remained the state flag until after the Civil War. Though the flag did fly over Mississippi when the state was part of the Confederacy, the roots of its symbols go back 50 years earlier and a fight for freedom from Spain.
When all of the flag controversy arose about 15 years ago, I never understood why the Magnolia Flag was not more seriously considered as an alternative state flag. There are only two main elements of the flag. There is the 1810 flag of West Florida and the magnolia tree. It is far more rooted in our history than our current flag, which was adopted in 1894. It is a more attractive and historic flag that we would be using to show sensitivity to all Mississippians. And we would be doing it not because somebody made us but because we wanted to. Since it once was the state flag why not allow the option for it to be flown instead of the current flag by those agencies and governmental bodies that desire to do so?
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.