Last month the Tompkins County Legislature passed its usual resolution acknowledging and recognizing African American History Month. I co-sponsored the resolution with Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, but we also added something extra to this year’s resolution. In addition to recognizing the importance of honoring African American history, the Legislature also resolved to fly the Pan-African (which I call the Red, Black and Green or “RBG”) Flag over various Tompkins County’s buildings to add a visual reminder of the month. I was motivated to make this request because I could not find in the legislative records that anyone had ever requested to fly this flag. Honoring African American History more visibly felt important.
Throughout February, the county flew these RBG Flags at the following county buildings: human services building; airport terminal, main courthouse, public safety building, health department, emergency response center, public works facility, crash, fire, rescue building and, my favorite location, the public library. When I saw the flags at the courthouse, the library and the airport terminal, I felt great pride in Tompkins County. When I was growing up I never thought that I would live in a county that would proudly raise and fly the RBG Flag. I am hoping that people in the county noticed the flags and wondered how and why those flags were raised.
I checked online to learn that some cities across the U.S. had raised the RBG Flag, but you could count those cities on one hand. I asked someone to check on other New York counties to determine whether any other county had flown the flag; they could not find a single one.
Since the RBG Flag is honoring history, here is some history. The Pan-African Flag is known by several names: the Marcus Garvey, UNIA flag, Afro-American flag, Black Liberation flag and others. On August 13, 1920, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League formally adopted the flag during a month-long convention in New York City. For several years leading up to that date, Marcus Garvey, the UNIA’s leader, talked about the need for a black liberation flag. Robert Hill, a historian and Marcus Garvey scholar, says that Garvey thought of a flag as necessary symbol of political maturity.
One theory about the Pan-African flag’s colors was that each had symbolic meaning. Red stood for blood — both the blood shed by Africans who died in their fight for liberation, and the shared blood of the African people. Black represented, well, black people. And green was a symbol of growth and the natural fertility of Africa.
Robert Hill says that the Pan-African flag went on to become the template for flags all over Africa as they gained independence. Ghana, Libya, Malawi, Kenya and many other African countries adopted the red, black and green — often with the addition of gold, which sometimes symbolizes mineral wealth. Moreover, Kwanzaa, the holiday created by African Americans to observe Black cultural heritage and values, also has the same colors as those found on the Black Liberation Flag.
This year I started with only asking the county to fly the RBG Flag. I did not ask the City of Ithaca because I know that they are working on a flag policy to govern these type of requests. I hope next year the city will also mark African American History month with this visible symbol.
As of today, the Flags are still flying, so I encourage you to take a look!
Tompkins County Legislator