This story is part of a special Juneteenth project with Vox which explores the ongoing struggle for freedom for Black Americans.
As the Juneteenth holiday approaches, you’ll start to see various symbols of Blackness across the country. Front lawns, apartment balconies, and clothing with the pan-African flag, “Black Power” fist, and other celebratory symbols will be everywhere. But did you know there’s a specific flag for Juneteenth?
In fact, it has a backstory that goes 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 known better as “Boston Ben,” created the flag in 1997. In an interview with Capital B Atlanta, Haith said once he learned about Juneteenth, he felt passionately it needed representation.
“I was just doing what God told me,” Haith said. “I have somewhat of a marketing background, and I thought Juneteenth, what it represented, needed to have a symbol.”
Haith wasn’t impressed with the initial concept, but every Juneteenth holiday he would raise the flag near his son’s middle school in Roxbury, a majority Black community in Boston.
After getting his inspiration for the flag, he knew which colors and symbols he wanted in the flag — he just needed to finalize it. That’s when he met illustrator Lisa Jeanne-Graf, who responded to an ad in a local newspaper and finalized the flag in 2000.
The design elements
Juneteenth is often associated with red, green, and black: the colors of the pan-African flag. However, those aren’t the colors of the Juneteenth flag. The banner shares the colors of the American flag: red, white, and blue. In the past, Haith has said it was a purposeful choice — a reminder that Black Americans descended from slaves are exactly that: American.
“For so long, our ancestors weren’t considered citizens of this country,” Haith said. “But realistically, and technically, they were citizens. They just were deprived of being recognized as citizens. So I thought it was important that the colors portray red, white, and blue, which we see in the American flag.”
Steven Williams, the president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, agreed with the sentiment.
“We’re Americans of African descent,” Williams said. “[The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation’s] mission statement is to bring all Americans together to join our common bond of freedom.”
There’s been some debate about whether the Juneteenth flag is the most appropriate symbol for the holiday. Haith said he understood why people could have some hesitancy around commemorating the freedom of slaves by using a red, white, and blue flag, which some see as a tribute to the oppressors of Black Americans.
“Some of us were raised to recognize the American flag, we salute the American flag, we pledged allegiance to the American flag,” Haith said when asked of the skepticism around the flag he created. “We had relatives who went to war to fight for this country. We put a lot into this country, even when our ancestors were enslaved. They worked to help make this country an economic power in the world.”
The star in the middle of the flag has a dual meaning. On June 19, 1865, Black slaves in Galveston, Texas, were informed of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of the freedom of enslaved people. The star on the Juneteenth flag is meant to represent Texas as the Lone Star state, but also the freedom of enslaved citizens.
Williams also spoke of the use of stars in helping slaves escape to freedom.
“When people were escaping down the Underground Railroad … they used stars to navigate where they were at, when they were going up and down,” he said.
With its dual meaning, it’s meant to represent the role that Texas plays in the history of Juneteenth, but also as another reminder that Black people are free.
The outline around the star and the arch
The outline was inspired by a nova, which is an explosion in space that creates the appearance of a new star. In this instance, it represents both slaves being free and a new beginning for Black Americans, Haith said.
The bottom half of the flag is red and shaped in an arch, which has similar meaning to the white outline around the star. The curve is meant to represent a “new horizon.”
Williams hopes the design reminds people to keep in mind that new beginnings take effort.
“I tell young people, ‘You are free,’” he said. “You might have obstacles, you might have hurdles, but you are free. … And you need to exercise that freedom, which is liberty.”
Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, nearly 200 years after slaves in Texas were informed of their freedom. The change, signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021, came at the behest of demands for racial progress following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Cities across the country were forced to reckon with 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 protester demands across the country. In metro Atlanta, there is an ongoing debate around 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 Confederate symbols were dismantled in 2020.
Individual states started to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday prior to Biden’s declaration. The first was Texas in 1980, and more states followed suit in 2020.
Theo Foster, a professor of African American History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, noted that symbols celebrating Black pride are important, but they’re not enough.
“We tend to just hold on to symbols and let the material go,” he said. “That’s where I’m hypercritical of progress narratives, and flags, and 1619 projects, because we don’t get to that point of where the rubber meets the road where the symbols meet the experience of Black boy joy or Black girl magic.”
The banner’s impact
Williams recognizes the flag as a larger part of his organization’s decades-long campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation has been on the front lines of the fight to have Juneteenth nationally recognized since its founding in 1997. Haith himself is a member.
Foster says he sees the Juneteenth flag as an attempt to honor Black Americans’ enslaved ancestors.
“Racism exists, anti-Blackness exists. How do we respond to that problem?” he said. “I think the Juneteenth flag is an attempt to respond to that harm that is ongoing. I think people are right to be critical of it, but also to be in conversation of what’s useful about it.”
Haith said he’s been overwhelmed by the fact that Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, and feels honored when people use the flag.
“I believe we represent our ancestors,” Haith said. “When we celebrate, we’re celebrating for them, and we’re celebrating for the future of our people. The flag represents the people of the past, it represents us, and it will represent the people in the future.”