5 things to keep in mind about Pensacola’s five flags

  • March 4, 2015
  • /   Joe Vinson
  • /   government
In December, the Escambia Board of County Commissioners voted to remove four of the five flags on display at the county-owned Pensacola Bay Center. Pensacola has long been known as the “City of Five Flags,” a reference to the five governments whose flags have flown over its soil: Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the Confederate States of America and the United States of America. In 2000, the City of Pensacola voted to replace the Confederate battle flag, which has been used as a rallying symbol by racist hate groups in the South, with the first national flag of the Confederate States of America (also known as the Stars and Bars) in all of its five flags displays. The Stars and Bars is considered more historically accurate for Pensacola, since the battle flag was not widely used until after confederate forces had abandoned Pensacola in 1862. Some county commissioners assumed they would be taking a similar action for the Pensacola Bay Center’s display, so the motion by Commissioner Doug Underhill — to fly only the U.S. flag and the State of Florida flag at county facilities — was somewhat unexpected. After it passed, there was a firestorm of feedback from citizens defending the historical five flags display. On Thursday, commissioners will consider reversing that decision and restoring the four missing flags to the Pensacola Bay Center’s display. I’m not sure they should. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan of Pensacola’s history and absolutely agree we should celebrate the different cultures that have influenced the city’s development. However, many of the arguments in favor of restoring the flags have been heavy on hyperbole and light on historicity. On Tuesday, Pensacola Today published a guest commentary by Phillip White, who said that Pensacola’s “history cannot be re-written by self-serving politicians.” “Spanish General de Galvez was recently named an honorary American citizen by the U.S. Congress,” White wrote. “If he were alive today, I am sure he would decline this honor if he knew our community had removed the Spanish flag.” That seems unlikely, since the idea of a single national flag of Spain is a relatively recent one. Our five flags display uses the flag of Castile and León to represent Spain, while Bernardo de Gálvez likely sailed under the Bourbonic flag of King Charles III. If anything, de Gálvez would probably be irked to see the British flag hoisted once again over Pensacola, after he went to such trouble to remove it. The most divisive element of the five flags display — the Confederate battle flag — has been rightfully removed, and thankfully there does not seem to be any serious proposal to put it back. (That’s a departure from 2000, when the commission — which included incumbent Wilson Robertson — voted unanimously to keep the battle flag.) Yet there are many who argue that any celebration of the Confederate period is inappropriate, because of the inextricable link between the CSA and the institution of slavery. I will not dispute that argument, but it is not the argument I make in this article. Here, then, are five other things to consider regarding the five flags.

1. Lots of cities can claim five (or more) flags

While Pensacola is known as the City of Five Flags, that’s not a unique title. Most of Florida has been claimed by the same list of five governments. Other parts of the country can claim five flags, too — and sometimes more. Ever heard of “Six Flags Over Texas”? Some Florida cities can claim other flags as well, like the State of Muskogee that briefly existed in the Tallahassee area. Heck, Amelia Island is known as the Isle of Eight Flags. And just west of us, Mobile, Ala. calls itself the City of Six Flags, because they were also part of the Republic of Alabama. Does that mean they’re 20 percent better than us? Banish the thought.

2. “City of Five Flags” is one of many slogans, and not the oldest

It’s hard to trace the exact origins of the phrase “City of Five Flags.” Some advertisements from the 1930s mentioned Pensacola’s history under “five different flags,” and the San Carlos Hotel decorated its lobby with a five flags motif. Certainly, the phrase was popularized thanks to the Fiesta of Five Flags Association, a non-profit organization that hosts several annual events celebrating Pensacola’s history and culture. According to the minutes of the organization’s earliest meetings in 1949, “It was decided that the focus of the festival should be the founding of Pensacola, America's oldest city, by Don Tristan DeLuna and a salute to our history under the five flags that have flown over the city.” The organization published a book, “Pictorial History of Pensacola: City of Five Flags,” in 1952. By the time of Pensacola’s Quadricentennial celebration in 1959, the phrase had become an integral part of Pensacola’s identity. Still, the phrase is less than a century old, and Pensacola has had many other epithets over the years. You probably know we’re the “Western Gate to the Sunshine State,” the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” and the home of the “World’s Whitest Beaches.” Former mayor Vince Whibbs liked to call us the place “where thousands live the way millions wish they could,” while the current mayor, Ashton Hayward, calls us “The Upside of Florida.” In the 1960s we were marketed as part of the “Miracle Strip” that stretched across the Panhandle, while more recent tourism efforts say we’ve been “Loved by Explorers Since 1559.” Other slogans have included:
  • Florida’s Outstanding City
  • The Metropolis of West Florida
  • Where Nature Lavished Gifts
  • The Deep Water City
  • The Land of Dreams and Love
  • A Good Place to Know
  • The Annapolis of the Air
  • Where the South spends the Summer
  • The Romantic Gateway to Florida
  • Year-Round City of Good Living
The earliest slogan, to my knowledge, dates back to 1877 and was coined by William Dudley Chipley. Chipley, a railroad tycoon in whose honor the obelisk in Plaza Ferdinand was erected, was one of Pensacola’s earliest tourism boosters. In 1877 he published a pamphlet hailing Pensacola as “The Naples of America” for its warm climate and deep port. (The actual city of Naples, Fla. would be founded a decade later.)

3. The county is not the city

Consider the phrase, “Pensacola: the City of Five Flags.” Besides “five flags,” the two key words are “Pensacola” and “city.” The government of Escambia County is neither. If anyone is going to carry water for the “five flags,” it should probably be the City of Pensacola.

4. It has never been an official motto or symbol of the city, either

For its part, the City of Pensacola has twice considered making the “five flags” an official motto or symbol — and twice rejected it. You probably remember the effort by Councilman Charles Bare in December 2013 to pass an ordinance naming “City of Five Flags” as the official motto of the City of Pensacola. This was largely in response to the rebranding effort led by Mayor Hayward calling Pensacola “The Upside of Florida.” The council voted 5-4 against Bare’s proposal. Many years earlier, in February 1960, the president of the Fiesta of Five Flags Association, Calvin L. Todd, wrote a letter to the city council with a suggestion. “Since the Fiesta is a public undertaking supported by all the citizens of Pensacola and particularly the business interests of the City,” Todd wrote, “the [Fiesta] Board of Governors feel that it would be appropriate that the City of Pensacola should take recognition of the five flags that have flown over the City, and would like to request that the City adopt the Five Flags crest as the City’s symbol and further, that this symbol be used on public buildings and vehicles as appropriate.” Oliver J. Semmes Jr., the city manager, had this to say about the proposal:
To me, the City of Pensacola is a level of government and has existed for many, many years and will exist for many hundreds of years to come, I hope, and I want you to think carefully before you permit the putting of any foreign flag in connection with any official crest for the City of Pensacola. I believe if there is any flag used, it should be that of the United States and that alone.
Taking this into consideration, the council recommended “that the Five Flag Emblem be used by the City for purposes of publicity … [but] that it not be used as the Official Emblem of the City of Pensacola for we have for that purpose the seal as prescribed by the Charter of the City of Pensacola.”

5. It doesn’t need to be official

“The Big Apple.” “The Big Easy.” “Beantown.” “What Happens Here, Stays Here.” “Keep Austin Weird.” “Cleveland Rocks!” What do these well-known city nicknames have in common? They’re not official government slogans. Some of them were introduced via popular culture, while others originated in an ad agency for tourism purposes, but none is inscribed on an official seal. The slogans and ideas that endure in the popular consciousness — like "City of Five Flags" — don't need government endorsement. They thrive organically. If the citizens of Pensacola continue to cherish the five flags as a symbol of the city's history, we will remain the City of Five Flags. Regardless of what the county commissioners decide, the only flag display that would be affected is at the Pensacola Bay Center. There are several similar displays across the city — on both public and private properties — that will remain standing. The Fiesta of Five Flags will not cease to exist. History will not be rewritten. History, it turns out, can take care of itself.