Historians differ on whether Florida flag echoes Confederate banner

The Florida state flag’s current design features diagonal red bars and the state seal.
The Florida state flag’s current design features diagonal red bars and the state seal.

To art majors, it’s a saltire, a heraldic symbol. To theologians, it’s a St. Andrew’s Cross, named for the Christian apostle who was nailed upon it. To a lot of us, it’s just a big red X. But is that thing criss-crossing Florida’s state flag really a racist symbol of the old Confederacy?

Some historians think so. Others say it’s a remnant of an even older period of history, when Florida was still under Spanish colonial rule. And some say it’s unknown and probably unknowable.

“You can read into this what you want to believe, and each generation will weigh in differently,” says Gary Mormino, an emeritus history professor at University of South Florida-St. Petersburg and author of several books on the state’s history. “And I have a feeling that, maybe in a generation or two, nobody will be interested any more.”

That moment, however, feels a long way off amid the growing public outcry about political symbols of the Confederate South in the wake of last week’s murder of nine black worshipers at a Charleston, S.C., church by a white gunman who spouted racist rhetoric. The man charged in the case, Dylann Roof, appears in several photographs on a website holding replicas of the Confederate battle flag.

The resulting controversy over Confederate symbols has enveloped everything from the state of South Carolina’s display of the battle flag to old Clinton-Gore campaign buttons bearing its likeness to military bases named after Confederate generals. And now it’s drawing in Florida’s state flag.

“Though no one seems to notice, Florida’s familiar state flag, with its red diagonal cross, or saltire, is the most overtly racist state symbol in the United States,” journalist and historian T.D. Allman — the author of Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State — said in a letter to the Miami Herald this week.

“In other states, the persistence of pro-slavery symbolism has generated controversy, and change, though not in Florida. To this day, Florida’s pro-slavery state flag continues to fly, unprotested, over highway patrol outposts, toll booths and post offices, as well over the state Capitol and Florida’s public schools.”

“I’m not sure that’s true,” counters James C. Clark, a lecturer in the University of Central Florida’s history department and author of A Concise History of Florida. “There’s certainly no concrete evidence that this was the intended message of the flag.”

Florida’s current flag — a white background, with the state seal in the center, criss-crossed by that red X — was adopted in 1900. (The state seal was slightly altered in 1985.) It’s the latest of half a dozen or so banners to have flown over Florida since Spanish explorers first hoisted their flag in 1506. There were several different flags under the Spanish, and even a modified version of the English union jack during Great Britain’s brief colonial rule in the 18th century.

Oddly, the first official Florida state flag wasn’t designed until Florida seceded from the United States in 1861 at the start of the Civil War. (Odder still, the new flag was essentially a ripoff of Texas’ lone-star flag, with the state seal substituting for the star.) In 1868, three years after the defeat of the Confederacy, Florida finally unveiled an original state flag — essentially, the same one we use today, except without that big red X.

But in 1900, Gov. Francis P. Fleming demanded a change. And this is where the story gets sketchy. By most historical accounts, Fleming argued that when the wind wasn’t blowing and the flag hung limp, it looked like a white flag of surrender. He added the red X, then put the new flag to a statewide referendum. It was adopted by a vote of 5,601 to 4,121.

Allman, however, doesn’t believe the story about the white flag of surrender. He says Fleming’s redesigned flag “is nothing more than the Confederate battle flag with the state seal of Florida superimposed on it. The pro-slavery flag, adopted in a whites-only referendum … was the culmination of a white-supremacy campaign.”

Fleming, a former Confederate soldier whose racist record is undisputed, eliminated most black citizens from the voting rolls with poll taxes and literacy tests. (Sample question: “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?”) He got the rest with a so-called grandfather clause, which restricted the right to vote to only those whose grandfathers had the right to vote, which eliminated anybody descended from slaves. He removed the state’s only black judge on a trumped-up charge of officiating over an illegal mixed-race marriage.

“He’s the second-worst governor in Florida history,” said Clark. “The worst is Sidney J. Catts, who was a racist and also crazy. Fleming was just racist.” (Catts, who served as governor from 1917 to 1921, among other things had Florida’s Catholic convents searched for weapons because he was convinced Pope Benedict XV was plotting to overthrow him and seize the state.)

Clark, nonetheless, doesn’t believe that Fleming’s new flag had anything to do with the Confederacy. “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,” Clark said. “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.”

Several other historians echoed Clark’s claim that there’s no evidence in newspapers or official documents of the day to verify the claim that the flag was intended to echo the Confederate banner. And, they added, if racist politicians wanted to salute the Confederacy in those days, they could have done so quite openly, as Mississippi did when it incorporated the entire stars-and-bars banner into their own state flag.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, the chairman of the history department at the University of North Carolina, said his search of a digital database of Florida newspapers from 1900 to 1901 turned up “no editorial comment whatsoever” on the flag referendum, suggesting it was not controversial at the time. He, too, was skeptical that the flag was an homage to the Confederacy.

“If you show the Florida flag to most people, I would be very, very surprised if many would see any similarity between the Confederate battle flag (which has a blue cross) and the Florida state flag,” Brunday said. “The only design element they share is a cross. It could be that the cross was intended to invoke/evoke the Lost Cause, but if so, we might wonder why white Floridians didn’t incorporate a more explicit reference to it. After all, whites in Mississippi did. And there was no political reason to not do so because Confederate commemoration was commonplace and uncontroversial in 1900.”

Canter Brown Jr., a Florida State-educated historian who has written extensively on Florida history, said that during the 1950s, when Southern states were resisting school-desegregation measures ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, newspapers widely speculated that the 1900 Florida flag was inspired by the Confederate flag.

“They all believed it was, but even then, it was a little unclear why,” Brown said. “I’ve seen no specific evidence linking this flag to the Confederate one.”

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