Could the days of a flag festooned with corn and cotton flying above Columbia City Hall truly, finally be numbered?
For nearly three years, the City of Columbia has bandied about adopting a new city flag. The lengthy process has flitted into and out of the headlines and the public consciousness since 2017, and was among the items queried over in Free Times' "Whatever Happened to..." cover package back in July.
Now the Columbia Design League, arts advocate One Columbia and Mayor Steve Benjamin have announced what they are calling a "new phase" in creating a fresh city flag. And according to new guidelines set forth by officials, the theme of "wings" will be incorporated in new designs.
Back in 2017, Columbia City Council authorized an open competition for the design of the new flag. As a result, more than 540 designs were submitted. Out of those, 18 designs were selected as what officials referred to at the time as "finalists." A group of vexillologists — experts in flag design — helped in identifying that group of 18. Subsequently, the public was invited to comment on that group of 18 flags, and more than 7,000 people participated.
However, according to a Sept. 6 release from the Columbia Design League, in the years since, City Council has "determined that additional design criteria should be considered, with the hope of arriving at finalist designs that most accurately reflect Columbia’s history and spirit."
First, a group of five designers has been chosen and each will submit new designs for a city flag. All five of the designers were among those who submitted designs in the initial process, and they were selected for this extended process based on public comment, input from flag experts and a jury review process. Each of the designers will receive a $500 stipend from the city.
The designers have been given six weeks to create new submissions, after which they will be presented for a blind review to Columbia City Council, which will ultimately choose the new city flag. The winning designer will get $2,000 from the Columbia Design League and Columbia Flag & Sign Co.
The five designers who have been chosen to enter the final phase of the flag saga are Samuel Choate, John Gehringer, Daniel Jones, Nick Julian and design studio/print shop The Half and Half.
Per the Design League, designs from the finalists "should incorporate colors and/or symbols that represent contemporary Columbia and the diversity of people that live and work in the city." The finalists are also being asked to include "shapes or symbols that signify wings."
Officials note that, in 1786, state Sen. John Lewis Gervais said, during the planning stages of the state's Capital City, that he hoped residents would "find refuge under the wings of Columbia." The iconography of wings also signifies Columbia's rise from the ashes, like a phoenix, after the city was burned in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.
The current city flag was adopted in 1912. It is sky blue with the city’s seal in the center. On the right side is a spray of cotton, and on the left side is a stalk of corn with full ears and a tasseled top. (Corn and cotton were the leading crops of the area at the time of the banner’s adoption.) The flag only flies at a few places in the city, including City Hall. The current flag was designed by a local school teacher named Kate Manning Magoffin. She won $100 in a contest sponsored by the city and The State newspaper for her flag design efforts.
The efforts to establish a new city flag first got underway in January 2017, some 32 months ago.
"We have an incredibly talented group of artists working on this project and I’m looking forward to seeing the designs they all come up with," Benjamin said, of the five ultimate finalists.
Columbia Design League co-founder Tom Savory says the process in getting to a new city flag will ultimately yield an enduring result.
“I am excited to see how the five top finalists will respond to the additional criteria, and am looking forward to a new city flag representative of our city’s rich history and our vibrant, diverse community," Savory said, in a release.
Councilman Howard Duvall has long been a proponent of a new city flag, and has kept the issue stoked these last few years. He says he is pleased to see the issue advancing.
"I think we certainly do need to get a better flag that represents a modern City of Columbia, rather than the corn stalks and cotton bolls that we have on the existing flag," Duvall says. "We will come up with something that is more representative of the city.