Q: I just discovered that the Texas Travel Information Centers around the state are no longer flying the six flags of Texas, which they did for at least twenty years. I find this to be similar to destroying or removing a historical monument. I was always thrilled to see those flags flying because they represented part of our Texas history. Why have the flags been taken down?
Celso Harper, Amarillo
A: The Texanist, as any faithful reader of this column knows, is a lover of history, especially the rich and colorful history of the Lone Star State. Anybody who has ever had the pleasure of sitting through a seventh-grade Texas history class, as the Texanist did at Temple’s Bonham Middle School back in the seventies (go Bulldogs!), would surely feel the same way. And this is probably especially so for anybody who had the pleasure of sitting through a Texas history class taught by the likes of the Texanist’s teacher, Coach E. A. “Boots” Simmons.
Coach Simmons, who in addition to handling Texas history also handled Bulldog football, had some rich and colorful history of his own. As a young man he was an all-American player at Texas A&M University before being drafted by the Chicago Cardinals in 1943 and then serving in World War II. As imposing a presence at the front of the classroom as he was on the gridiron, Coach Simmons was known to carry a big stick, which he was not afraid to thwack on the desks of sleepy-headed students.
Now, the Texanist would be lying if he said that he recalled every detail relating to the six flags over Texas that Coach Simmons imparted. But he certainly remembers—thanks in part to that stick—the basics. To wit: the six flags over Texas represent the sovereign entities that have laid claim to at least some portion of the place we now call Texas. In more or less chronological order, they are Spain (1519–1685 and 1690–1821); France (1685–1690); Mexico (1821–1836); the Republic of Texas (1836–1845); the United States of America (1845–1861 and 1865–present); and the Confederate States of America (1861–1865). (The Texanist should note that the Confederate flag that flew here was the “Stars and Bars,” which was the South’s first official national emblem, not the more familiar—and now widely despised—Confederate battle flag.)
Some argue that there should be a seventh flag in the mix, that of the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande, the 1840 effort by Mexican Federalists to separate from Mexico’s central government and form their own country, which would have included parts of present-day Texas. While that effort failed, the upstart nation did have itself a fetching standard, which certainly would have made for a handsome addition to Texas’s flaggy menagerie, what with its stark design: two horizontal stripes, white atop black, with a red vertical stripe on the flag’s hoist end marked by an assembly of three white stars. “Wow, so dramatic,” was the assessment of a colleague who spied an image of the RRG flag on the Texanist’s desk while dropping by for a sprig of beef jerky. Alas, the RRG never really got off the ground, so its banner has never been granted canonical status.
Still others note the omission of any flags representing the Indigenous proto-Texans who held domain over the region long before Europeans arrived. The Texanist, though, is unaware of either Apachería or Comanchería having been represented by a specific banner.
Arguable oversights aside, the currently accepted array that makes up the six flags does indeed represent much of the grand sweep of Texas history. And that includes not just the most glorious aspects of our past, but also the less glorious and even the downright shameful parts. And this is where the discussion always gets interesting. Though our years as a colony of Spain, France, and Mexico and as an independent republic are complicated and worthy of ongoing debate, our years as a member of the Confederacy are hard to defend, let alone look back on as a point of pride. (The Texanist believes this is so, even though he had ancestors who fought for the Confederacy with the Second Texas Partisan Rangers.)
And while none of us should ignore that era, the question—and it’s a fraught one—is how we go about remembering that period without seeming to celebrate it. In your letter, Mr. Harper, you compare the removal of the six flags from the Texas Travel Information Centers to the removal or destruction of other historical monuments. The Texanist assumes you are speaking of monuments dedicated to the Confederacy, which have indeed been the subject of much controversy—and removal and destruction—in recent years.
Well-intentioned Texans will disagree about this, but the Texanist comes down firmly on one side of the debate: public statuary is not a neutral representation of history. When a statue of some long-gone figure striking a heroic pose is placed on a pedestal in a public spot, that person is, without a doubt, being valorized. And in the case of Confederate generals and the like, we are valorizing figures who committed treason in the name of enslaving fellow countrymen. This is not, one would think, a message that our state would wish to send.
The very same reasoning, the Texanist would argue, goes for flags, which by definition are supposed to evoke an ideal and a sense of pride. Which is precisely why even the famed Texas-founded amusement park company Six Flags Over Texas did away with the six flags back in 2017. “We always choose to focus on celebrating the things that unite us versus those that divide us,” the company said at the time. “As such, we have changed the flag displays in our parks to feature American flags.”
That said, the official line is that the recent removal of the six flags from our travel centers was not prompted by the same considerations. According to the folks over at the Texas Department of Transportation, which oversees the centers, the six flags were replaced by the Lone Star flag and Old Glory as a way to save money. “The decision to switch to flying just the U.S. and Texas flags was made and approved by then executive director James Bass in 2020, but discussions about reducing the number of flags have been ongoing for several years as a cost-saving measure,” agency spokesperson Ryan LaFontaine says.
Maintaining six flags at many of the state’s centers—there are a dozen such facilities—isn’t cheap, LaFontaine explained, what with the constant need to repair poles, cables, and the flags themselves. Flying only two flags saves TxDOT as much as $80,000 annually. What’s more, the agency says the modification is “consistent with flag protocols at the Texas Capitol and at all other TxDOT facilities.”
As you note, Mr. Harper, the six flags have been flown at the travel centers for twenty or so years. Which is to say they are a relatively recent tradition, not one that is deeply rooted in Texas culture. The travel centers didn’t begin unfurling the six flags until many of them were updated in the nineties and aughts. And not all of them flew the six flags—the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center, in Langtry, and the Capitol Complex Visitor Center, in Austin, have never done so. (Incidentally, Austin’s Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum flew the six flags in its plaza for about two decades. After a recent renovation, though, it will soon feature only the Lone Star flag and Old Glory.)
Now, the Texanist would like to say two things about all of this. First, no matter the putative reasoning for doing away with the six flags, it’s a good thing that the millions of visitors who frequent our travel centers aren’t greeted by a symbol of one of our darkest historical periods. The centers exist, after all, for the purpose of creating “a positive first impression of the Lone Star State.” Second, despite his opinions in regard to the matter, the Texanist doesn’t wish to minimize the sense of loss you feel about this change. There is, without a doubt, something bracing about seeing a half dozen colorful banners majestically flapping in a sturdy breeze. But in a country and a state where the decades-long work of overcoming the legacy of slavery is far from done, the Texanist believes that such sentiments should not be the only ones up for consideration, nor should they be the ones that reign.
And for what it’s worth, anyone who wishes to view the six flags in all their complicated glory may still do so in a somewhat more appropriate setting, that being the Great Hall, a.k.a. the Hall of Six Flags, located in the Hall of State at Dallas’s Fair Park, home of the State Fair of Texas (where, it is believed, the six flags were first popularized during the 1936 Texas centennial). This year’s fair, by the way, runs from September 30 through October 23!
Thanks for the letter. And happy travels to you, sir.
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This article originally appeared in the October issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Texanist.” Subscribe today.