Thursday, June 25, 2015



Knoxville, Tennessee (JFK+50) The horrific shooting last week at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina resulting in the senseless deaths of 9 African-American worshipers, has stirred emotions throughout the nation on the Confederate battle flag and Southern state flags which have elements of that flag or other Confederate national flags.

Because the self-confessed 21 year old killer was photographed with the Confederate flag and displayed a Confederate plate on his car,  the much debated topic on whether or not the CSA flag should be removed from the South Carolina State Capitol grounds has taken center stage.

Other Southern states have also either taken action to remove reminders of the Confederacy from public view or have begun to consider action to replace their flags because of association with the "lost cause." 

The states in question include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.  

Of these, only Mississippi's state flag includes the Confederate battle flag symbol. Since I am a native Tennessean, and proud of it, JFK+50 will address today the question of changing the Tennessee State Flag.

Let's look at the history of that flag.  It was designed by a member of the Tennessee National Guard, Colonel Le Roy Reeves*.  It was officially adopted by the Tennessee State Legislature on April 17, 1905 and first raised during dedication ceremonies of the East Tennessee State Normal School in Johnson City on October 10, 1911.  It has flown over our state buildings for over a century.

According to Colonel Reeves' own explanation of the flag's design...

"The three stars are of pure white, representing the three grand divisions (East, Middle and West).  They are bound together by the endless circle of the blue field, the symbol being three bound together in one.  The large field is crimson."

While there is nothing in the Colonel's words to cause one to assume he adapted his design from the Confederate battle flag, vexillologist Steven A. Knowlton** sees a link between the two.   After all, they are both red, white and blue, and display white stars.  In addition, the vertical border on the right side of the Tennessee flag bears a resemblance to the vertical border on the Confederate National Flag.

Mr. Knowlton, however, offers Tennessee this benefit of the doubt.  He wrote...

"It is reasonable to say a logo is only expressing Tennessee pride, even if deeper symbolic recognition does link it to Confederate imagery."

As a retired American History teacher, I am well aware of Tennessee's Confederate history, but I am also aware that my state was divided over the issue of secession. My grand division, East Tennessee, voted by a 2/3 majority against leaving the Union in 1861, and my own ancestors supported the Union during the war and were harassed and suffered bodily harm at the hands of secessionists before the war began. 

I personally have never considered my state flag to have any connection to the Confederacy, but having said that, if there are those Tennessee African-Americans who do, then I would favor changing it.

In South Carolina, many white citizens are saying the time has come for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the State Capitol grounds.  It also may well be a proper time to remove any semblance of comparison between the Tennessee State Flag and the flags of the Confederacy.

*LeRoy Reeves (1876-1960) was born in Johnson City, TN & educated at Science Hill High School & Johnson City College & Normal Institute.  LR taught public school before admission to the Bar in 1899.  He organized Company F of the 3rd Infantry Division of the TNG in 1903 & served in the Mexican border war in 1919.  LR served as Judge Advocate in the US Army until 1940 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in JC.

**Steven A. Knowlton is Assistant Professor of Libraries Collection Management at the University of Memphis.  SAK earned his degree at the University of Michigan in 1994 & is currently Secretary of the North American Vexillolgical Association.


"How the Confederacy lives on in the flags of seven Southern states," by Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post, June 21, 2015,

"Steven A. Knowlton,"

Flag of Tennessee
Open Clip Art Library
July 14, 2006