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VOL. 45 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 19, 2021

Do we need a new Nashville flag we could all salute?

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Councilman Colby Sledge is exploring whether Nashville should consider changing its city flag.

“This is just one of those things that comes to my mind every now and then,” he told me in an email, “and one evening I thought, I wonder if other people think the same.

“So I did what anyone does to gauge public opinion: I tweeted.”

I know what you may be thinking: Twitter is a reliable source of public opinion?

Also: Nashville has a flag?

It does, as do Knoxville and Chattanooga, among others. The Knoxville version, adopted in 1896, is said to be the oldest city flag in Tennessee. An odd mishmash of red-white-black-and-blue squares and stripes and a winged depiction of the city seal, it looks like a distress signal.

Chattanooga’s flag dates only from 2012, when city leaders decided they needed something updated and less like the state flag, which its earlier version mimicked. The new one has the city seal, with two horizontal green stripes (representing mountains) surrounding a central blue stripe (for the Tennessee River).

Mama always told me green and blue don’t go together. I agree with Mama.

For most of its life, Nashville got by with no flag. But in 1961, at the behest of Mayor Ben West, city school students entered a contest to design a banner for the city.

The winner among 115 entries featured a blue star with a gold wreath and letter N against a red background with white crisscross. It earned a $50 savings bond for the designer, Harville Duncan, a senior at Hume-Fogg.

But Duncan’s legacy was short-lived. After Nashville switched to Metro government in 1963, it scrapped the 2-year-old banner in favor of the current one, which Sledge thinks may have reached its sell-by date.

The seal alone could provide a compelling argument for dumping it. Seals – though they exist aplenty on all manner of flags – are considered no-nos among flag experts, known as vexillologists.

In “Good Flag, Bad Flag,” one of those experts, the author Ted Kaye, advises: “Seals were designed for placement on paper to be read at close range. Very few are effective on flags – too detailed.”

When you add the fact that Nashville’s seal features the image of a Native American holding a skull – a depiction no one seems able to justify or explain – that alone might be enough to change the flag.

And the seal, for that matter.

But change can be hard to come by. My home state, Mississippi, just gave itself a new flag, but the process took years, legislative action, two public votes and a state commission that sorted through 3,000 designs proposed by the public – even though the old version had a Confederate battle flag on it.

Actually, the difficulty changing it was precisely because the old one had a Confederate battle flag. Many folks in Mississippi found that agreeable. But in the end, 73% of voters endorsed a new design, its distinguishing image that of a magnolia blossom, the state flower.

I asked Sledge what kind of procedure he envisioned for any change to the Nashville flag.

“Establishing a special commission that represents our city’s diversity would be a great start, just to get people talking to each other,” he said.

He sees opportunity in the process.

“Responses have been passionate,” he added, “but the underlying message in a lot of them has been: Don’t forget us. There are a lot of groups who feel left out, underrepresented or misunderstood in our city. A discussion about our flag could be one path toward changing that.”

He’s also gotten one proposed design, from Rob Allgood, a Nashvillian and graphic designer.

“I got chills when I opened it,” Sledge said, calling it “clean” and “simple.”

Chills are not what I got when I saw the design. It seems to need only the image of a saber-toothed tiger to make it a Nashville Predators banner.

But I confess to bias. That’s the thing about flags: Everybody’s a critic, with beauty in the eye of the beholder. (Aside: The Tennessee flag is my new favorite state flag, replacing that of Texas.) A popular submission for Mississippi had as its focal point the image of a mosquito.

More suggestions for Nashville are sure to follow.

“I haven’t seen other designs yet, although others have reached out to offer their design services and provide input,” Sledge said. “My child’s day care has said they’re going to have the kids design their own city flag as an art project, so that should be fun.

“Maybe we’ll have the first city flag with cotton balls on it.”

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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