The white Tri-Star swims in pool of blue enveloped in a sea of red – the flag a vector of Tennessee.
“There aren’t a lot of state flags that have elicited the kind of pride that ours does,” said Gordon Belt, Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library and Archives. “You see the flag flying all over the state and on corporate logos,” he added. “It’s just become quite a symbol for the state of Tennessee.”
The three stars represent the three grand divisions of Tennessee: West, Middle and East. “They are arranged in such a way that not one star has prominence over the other,” Belt explained.
Belt said that was an intentional design by the creator of the current flag of Tennessee. Colonel Le Roy Reeves submitted a full explanation of his design to the Tennessee General Assembly more than a century ago.
“The symbol being three bound together in one—an indissoluble trinity.”
Col. Le Roy Reeves
“Col. Reeves didn’t want each grand division to hold power over the other,” Belt continued. “They were all equal in the eyes of Reeves and eventually our state government.”
Col. Reeves was a teacher, attorney and military man from Johnson City, Tennessee. He served in the Third Regiment, Tennessee Infantry. Belt said Col. Reeves took great pride in his country and his state. “He wanted to show it with a proper flag. And, he was very instrumental in carrying that forward.”
The Tennessee General Assembly adopted Col. Reeves’ design for a new state flag on April 17, 1905. “I think what makes our state flag unique… there was a lot of thought brought into it,” Belt said.
The act that makes Col. Reeves’ creation the official state flag describes every detail of the cloth and how each element should be arranged; even down to the intervals between the points of the stars.
Before the Tri-Star flag was flown, another flew. “It was conceived right before the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897,” Belt elaborated, “It flew prominently at that event, but it wasn’t widely accepted.”
Belt said the flag was rarely flown across the state. “At a distance, you couldn’t read it, and it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing.” It was designed with red, white and blue diagonal stripes. Each stripe representing the three grand divisions. It also had “The Volunteer State” sewn in the middle as well as the number 16 to mark Tennessee becoming the 16th state of the Union.
105 years after Col. Reeves masterpiece was adopted, his flag remains an icon Tennesseans proudly display. “I think this flag is here to stay,” Belt added, “There’s quite a bit of love for the state flag in our state.”
The original sketch by Col. Reeves of the flag can be found in the Tennessee State Library and Archives collection.
The original flag Col. Reeves created was flown at the National Guard Armory in Johnson City before he donated it to the state for preservation. It is now under the care of curators at the Tennessee Sate Museum.
Tennessee 225: Dive into the history of the Volunteer State.