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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Understanding the power of flags and their symbolism

What the hell is up with the beehive on the City of Wilmington flag?

VEXING VEXILLOGOGY: John Stephenson has a handful of design ideas for Wilmington’s city flag, including one with vertical stripes behind a black cross (above), influenced by nautical flags and representing the ‘port’ side of a ship—a nod to Wilmington’s history as a trade hub and port city. Courtesy photo.

There are few images that spark as much discussion, controversy and activity in the last few years as Bree Newsome climbing the South Carolina capitol flag pole to remove the Confederate flag. Vexillology, or the study of flags and their symbols, is not new. Indeed, the use of flags as a rallying symbol in battle, commemoration or peace has been integral to human interactions for centuries.

VEXING VEXILLOGOGY: John Stephenson has a handful of design ideas for Wilmington’s city flag, including one with vertical stripes behind a black cross (above), influenced by nautical flags and representing the ‘port’ side of a ship—a nod to Wilmington’s history as a trade hub and port city. Courtesy photo.

VEXING VEXILLOLOGY: John Stephenson has a handful of design ideas for Wilmington’s city flag, including one with vertical stripes behind a black cross (above), influenced by nautical flags and representing the ‘port’ side of a ship—a nod to Wilmington’s history as a trade hub and port city. Courtesy photo.

The term “vexillology” was coined in the late 1950s by Whitney Smith, one of the founders of the North American Vexillology Association. How we perceive and respond to symbols changes over time, and Newsome’s removal of the flag at South Carolina’s capitol is a perfect example.
Flying the flag 50 years ago (from a defeated breakaway nation) on a government building did not raise objections, but it is unacceptable now.

In the 1960s Abbie Hoffman wore a shirt with the American flag on it, which was considered a desecration. Now American-flag clothing is considered patriotic. We attach so much importance to these symbols, yet spend relatively little time contemplating their origins or meanings.

This was brought home for me yet again at Stevens Ace Hardware. The young man waiting on me, John Stephenson, is an amateur vexilloligist. He was helping get some chain lengths cut and somehow it led to a discussion bemoaning the disaster that is our city flag. John is always good-natured, kind and gentlemanly. On this day, when we stumbled into talking about flags, his face lit up with a glow I had never seen; his eyes danced with excitement. Anyone who knows how wonderful it is to be around someone who is excited and passionate about something understands. Though I lacked John’s passion for the topic, we both found we could agree on one thing: What the hell is up with the beehive on the City of Wilmington flag?

As it turns out, we are not alone in this question.

According to Ben Steelman’s reporting in the StarNews, there was a movement among city staff to change the city seal and flag in 2005 from the beehive to something more appropriate to our maritime history.

No one seems to have a clear answer as to why we have a beehive on our city seal and flag. According to Steelman the best answer came from local historian Beverly Tetterton. She suggested it might have something to do with industriousness and progress.

The more I thought about my conversation with John, the more I was curious to hear how a member of the next generation perceived the symbol. Maybe it is time to think about changing it. If no one can even remember why it was selected in the first place, perhaps we could engage in a conversation about how we want to represent ourselves going forward. John was kind enough to share some insight about design and vexillology with encore.

encore (e): Why are flags significant to people?

John Stephenson (JS): I think flags are an extremely important factor in unifying people of a common background behind a cause or place they believe in.

e: When did you first become interested in flags?

JS: My passion was sparked mainly by the famous photograph of the United States Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima during World War II. The sheer power of such an image and the weight behind it, to me, was a true testament to the power of a flag, and showcased they are far beyond a piece of fabric but a symbol of a set of beliefs many will take to the grave to defend. I also attribute my passion to learning about the Texas v. Johnson Supreme Court ruling in my AP government class, which demonstrated the true dedication and fervor of Americans to their flag.

[Writer’s note: Texas v. Johnson was the Supreme Court Case that ruled in favor of Johnson’s right to freedom of speech with flag-burning as an act of speech. Congress reacted by passing the Flag Protection Act, which made flag desecration a federal crime. The Doonesbury comic strip at the time pointed out the extreme nature of the law, and noted any newspaper with an image of a flag appearing in its pages could no longer be thrown in the trash or used to line a birdcage. The law was eventually overturned by a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Eichman in 1990.]

e: Do you have a favorite country flag or city flag?

JS: My favorite belongs to Chicago. Although there is bias behind the statement, being that I love Chicago dearly (go Cubs!), the flag is beautifully simplistic and symbolizes important features of the city.

A close runner-up, for me, is the flag of Amsterdam—being that it is also barebones but represents the city’s coat of arms and is really, really cool.

e: What about the City of Wilmington flag first caught your attention? When did you decide that it could be better?

JS: The first time I ever came into contact with the flag of Wilmington was when I was stopped by a WPD officer in a parking lot and noticed the patch of a beehive on his arm. Following this encounter, everywhere I went I couldn’t notice anything besides it. This beehive design is everywhere: municipal documents, government vehicles, etc.

I wanted to know where I could find a flag of Wilmington, being that I have never actually seen one. After days of hunting, I found the only one in town at the very end of Market Street by the river on a flag pole below the American flag. I was instantly disappointed and knew why it wasn’t flying everywhere. It’s horrific. In giant letters the flag displays: “STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA — CITY OF WILMINGTON” with that dreaded beehive seal sandwiched between the two declarations.

Does anyone even know what the beehive symbolizes?

I knew the flag must be changed, as seals belong on documents, not flags flapping in the wind, and if a flag has to blatantly tell you what it represents in plain text, well, its design has failed.
I knew a better flag of Wilmington—which was simple and easily recognizable but still symbolic of the city’s location and history—was needed to help unify this historically rich and diverse city many call home (and many more in the next few years).

e: Tell us about the ideas you have had for redesigning the City of Wilmington flag?

JS: Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to create one as detailed as I would like due to my lack of proper software; however, I have been able to create a few simplistic designs to submit. My hope is these flags will not be imposed as new flags for Wilmington, but rather initiate a dialogue on the topic and allow others to create their own designs or share their thoughts on it.
Right now, I have about five designs I like and all of them use the same pallet. [One includes] two stripes and the use of the lighter “Tar Heel” blue (not a nod the collegiate team but rather state history) represent the two bodies of water surrounding Wilmington (the Cape Fear and Atlantic). The use of black represents the region’s history tar settlement and white to represent the peaceful nature, tranquility and friendliness of the area and its inhabitants. The vertical stripes behind the black cross are also the same format as the nautical flag representing the “port” side of a ship—a nod to Wilmington’s history as a trade hub and port city.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. William

    April 17, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    “Flying the flag 50 years ago (from a defeated breakaway nation) on a government building did not raise objections, but it is unacceptable now.”

    This is untrue and strengthens the claim that there are two (or more) Americas, one white and one black. Historically, African-Americans have had objections to Confederate iconography in the public sphere. It has always meant hate not history to us. The fact that our concerns were ignored 50 years ago does not mean they did not exist. Whites are always the last to care about civil rights issues.

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