Florida's official flag may be the only state flag in the union to feature a woman of color on it, but is it also "the most overtly racist symbol in the United States"? That's what T.D. Allman, historian and author of Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State, asserts in a letter to the Miami Herald's editors this week. Outlets such as MSNBC and the Washington Post this week have also included the Florida flag on lists of state flags that have Confederate imagery. But is it really so racist?
The flag's origins date back to antebellum Florida, when in 1868 the state decided to simply slap its official seal on a white background and call it a day. That sufficed for decades until 1900, when an amendment added a red saltire behind the seal. The official story is that Floridians thought the all-white number looked too much like a flag of surrender and lacked overall color.
The change was led by Gov. Francis P. Fleming, a former Confederate soldier, fierce segregationist, and Southern nationalist. Allman maintains that the red cross was meant to evoke the blue cross of the Confederate battle flag and was intentionally meant to recall the Confederacy.
Indeed, Alabama had adapted its own current state flag just five years before the change to Florida's. It features the same red saltire, and Alabama's official state history concludes "the flag was intended to 'preserve in permanent form some of the more distinctive features of the Confederate battle flag, particularly the St. Andrew’s cross.'"
However, the Miami Herald talked to state historians, who say they have found no direct evidence intentionally linking Florida's flag design to the Confederate flag.
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"That St. Andrew's Cross that Fleming added, the red X, dates back to the original flag the Spanish flew over Florida in the 16th Century," James C. Clark, a member of the University of Central Florida's history department, tells the Herald. "I think Fleming, who was a former soldier, would have been genuinely sensitive about the white flag of surrender. Certainly there's nothing written down anywhere that I've ever seen that suggests he had any other motive."
Indeed, many think the red cross is supposed to evoke not the Confederate flag but another flag that flew over Florida for more than two centuries: the banner of the Spanish Empire.
Interestingly, no one discussed the fact that the central design element of the flag — the seal — is a constant reminder of the fact that we stole this land from indigenous people. Which, well, is at least honest. However, the boat in the image is meant to represent a steamboat, not a Spanish ship, as some people seem to think (those "some people" may have included me for a long time).
Granted, you don't have to look far for official symbols of Florida that do recall the Confederate flag. Here's the official seal of the state senate. It was adopted only in 1972 and features the five flags that have flown over Florida, including the Spanish flag (though a more recent one than the red saltire version seen above), the American flag, a French flag, the British flag, and the Confederate battle flag — which, technically, wasn't actually the official flag of the Confederacy. Maybe this is the symbol at which we should actually aim our ire at the moment. It's not even technically historically accurate! However, if Floridians do feel that our current flag design is too controversial, we'd like to humbly propose a replacement. It features three symbols of Florida that we hope are universally beloved and totally uncontroversial: a manatee, an orange, and a Publix sub. All are juxtaposed against a background of teal and hot pink to honor the traditional interior decorating schemes of many '70s and '80s Florida motels.