As a 39-year career social studies teacher in the Little Rock School District, I teach about government and its symbols. Our flags are important symbols of our republic and states, and each contains other symbols to represent them. As I look at the racially and spiritually diverse students in my school and members of my extended family, I must use multiple perspectives in teaching concepts that are controversial.
Last school year as I was explaining the symbols on the Arkansas flag, I looked at the faces of my elementary students ... a true representation of Little Rock's rainbow of racial diversity. When I got to the lone blue star above the name Arkansas, I looked at them and said, "I don't want to teach you about that star because it represents something bad in our state's history." Being inquisitive kids, they wanted to know what was the bad thing.
It hurts my heart to tell them that Arkansas was one of the states where slavery was legal and became part of the Confederate States of America. For many, it was the first time they had heard this. Young students prefer to think positively. It's why so many little kids love superheroes ... to save them from the bad. I told my elementary students that I was going to try to get the meaning of the fourth star changed.
Don't we want to represent the best of Arkansas? Our first flag was created in 1913 without that star. It was added during the years of Jim Crow to remind a portion of our population of a time when they were not equal. Today it is still a reminder of institutional racism.
I think if we want to keep the four large blue stars and not change the flag design, then we must change the meaning of at least one or more stars. Remove the Confederacy and add indigenous American groups who lived on Arkansas land before even the Spanish and French claimed it, the Quapaw, Caddo, and Osage. The Quapaw gave our state its name, the "downstream people."
We could also recognize the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeast U.S. who tried to live with the white culture and farm. Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, these peoples were forced to leave their lands, their farms, their homes to travel to Oklahoma Indian Territory. Several routes were traveled in all kinds of weather across Arkansas. For one quarter of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, the horrific journey was a death march called The Trail of Tears.
The fourth star could represent the indigenous groups of early Arkansas with its five points paying homage to the Five Civilized Tribes. The late Arkansas historian Dr. C. Fred Williams taught us that not all of these displaced people made it to the crossing of the Arkansas River. Many hid in the hills and forests of Crowley's Ridge, so many Arkansans have this heritage.
There is also language on the flag's information sheet that recognizes Arkansas and Michigan as "sister" states. According to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (created to keep the balance of power), if a slave state were to be added to the U.S., then a free state must also be added.
Arkansas (a slave state) was added in 1836 as the 25th state, and Michigan (a free state) was added in 1837 as the 26th state ... hence, another echo of our racist history. I know that I'm not the only one to notice that our flag's white stars inside blue bars that form the outline of the large diamond resembles another infamous flag from history.
If we remove the meaning of each of the four blue stars, then why have these symbols on the flag at all? Perhaps it is time to move our flag into the 21st century with a design that reflects who we are as a state today, without the taint of hidden bias.
Vicki Gonterman, M. Ed., of North Little Rock was the 2016 National Elementary Social Studies Teacher of the Year, presented by the National Council For the Social Studies.
Editorial on 04/11/2019
Print Headline: Hidden bias