Portion of the issue of the tenth of June from The highlightour home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
As the Juneteenth holiday approaches, you will start to see various symbols of Blackness across the country. Front yards, apartment balconies and clothing with the Pan-African flag, “Black Power” fist and other festive symbols will be seen everywhere. But did you know that there is a specific flag for Juneteenth?
In fact, it has a backstory going back to the late 1990s. Capital B spoke with Ben Haith, the flag’s creator, and others to learn more about its history and impact.
Haith, a community organizer and activist better known as “Boston Ben,” created the flag in 1997. In an interview with Capital B Atlanta, Haith said that when he heard about Juenteenth, he felt passionately that it needed representation.
“I just did what God told me,” Haith said. “I have a bit of a marketing background and I thought Juneteenth, which it represented, must have a symbol.”
Haith wasn’t impressed with his first draft — a “rough sketch” — but every June vacation he raises the flag at his son’s high school in Roxbury, a predominantly black community in Boston.
After getting some inspiration, he knew what colors and symbols he wanted in the flag, he just had to finish it. Then he met illustrator Lisa Jeanne-Graf, who responded to an ad in a local newspaper and completed the flag in 2000.
The Design Elements
Juneteenth is often associated with red, green and black: the colors of the Pan-African flag. Those aren’t the colors of the Juneteenth flag, though. The banner shares the colors of the American flag: red, white and blue. In the past, Haith has said it was a deliberate choice—a reminder that black Americans descended from enslaved people are just that: American.
“Our ancestors were not considered citizens of this country for so long,” Haith said. “But realistically and technically they were civilians. They were simply not recognized as citizens. So I thought it was important that the colors represent red, white and blue that we see in the American flag.”
Steven Williams, the president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, agreed with the sentiment.
“We are Americans of African descent,” Williams said. The mission of his foundation, he added, “is to bring all Americans together to join our common bond of freedom.”
something has happened debate on whether the Juneteenth flag is the most appropriate symbol for the holiday. Haith said he understood why people are hesitant to use a red, white and blue flag to commemorate the freedom of enslaved people, which some see as an honor for the oppressors of black Americans.
“Some of us were raised to recognize the American flag, we salute the American flag, we have sworn allegiance to the American flag,” Haith said when asked about skepticism about the flag. “We had relatives who went to war for this country. We put a lot into this country, even when our ancestors were enslaved. They were working to make this country an economic power in the world.”
The star in the center of the flag has a double meaning: On June 19, 1865, enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, were informed of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln’s statement on the freedom of enslaved people. The star is intended to represent Texas as the Lone Star State, but also to represent the freedom of enslaved citizens.
Williams also spoke of using stars as a key to help enslaved people escape to freedom.
“When people escaped along the Underground Railroad… they used stars to navigate where they were, when they were going up and down,” he said.
With its dual meaning, it is meant to represent the role Texas plays in Juneteenth history, but it also serves as another reminder that black people are free.
The circumference around the star and arc
The outline is inspired by a nova, an explosion in space that creates the appearance of a new star. In this case, it represents both the freedom of enslaved people and a new beginning for black Americans, Haith said.
Dividing the red and blue in the center of the flag is an arc, which has the same meaning as the white outline around the star. The curve is intended to represent a ‘new horizon’.
Williams hopes the design will remind people to keep in mind that new beginnings take effort.
“I tell young people, ‘you are free,'” he said. “You may have obstacles, you may have obstacles, but you are free. … And you have to exercise that freedom, which is freedom.”
Juneteeth is now a federal holiday, nearly 200 years after enslaved people in Texas were informed of their freedom. The change, signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, came at the behest of demands for racial advancement after the George Floyd police murder in Minneapolis. Cities across the country were forced to heed calls to remove and rename monuments and institutions honoring Confederate leaders of the past.
In Richmond, Virginia, a capital of the former Confederacy, Monuments of Confederate Generals that were centuries old were dismantled after demands from protesters across the country. In metro Atlanta, there is an ongoing debate about the removal of Confederate leaders etched on the side of Stone Mountain† It is said to be the largest monument to the Confederacy in the world.
In America, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that at least: 160 Southern Symbols were demolished in 2020.
Individual states began recognizing Juneteenth as a public holiday ahead of President Biden’s statement. The first was Texas made in 1980, and more states followed in 2020†
Theo Foster, a professor of African American history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, noted that symbols that celebrate black pride are important, but not enough.
“We tend to just hang on to symbols and let go of the material,” he said. “That’s where I’m hypercritical about progress stories, and flags and… 1619 projectsbecause we don’t get to the point where the rubber meets the road where the symbols meet the experience of Black Boy Joy or Black Girl Magic.”
Williams recognizes the flag as a bigger part of his organization’s decades-long campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation has been at the forefront of the fight to get Juneteenth nationally recognized since its inception in 1997. Haith is a member herself.
Foster says he sees the Juneteenth flag as an attempt to honor the enslaved ancestors of black Americans.
“Racism exists, anti-Blackness exists. How do we deal with that problem?” he said. “I think the Juneteenth Flag is an attempt to respond to the ongoing damage. I think that people are rightly critical of it, but also enter into a discussion about what is useful about it.”
Haith said he was overwhelmed by the fact that Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, and is honored when people use the flag.
“I believe we represent our ancestors,” Haith said. “When we celebrate, we celebrate for them, and we celebrate for the future of our people. The flag represents the people of the past, it represents us and it will represent the people of the future.”
Kenya Hunter is a health reporter at Capital B Atlanta. Prior to joining Capital B, Hunter was an award-winning education reporter with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.