Livingston — As debate rages across the country about the display of the Confederate battle flag, Louisiana has its own standard that may at first appear to be connected to the Confederacy but whose own story is far more complicated.
Commonly known as the Bonnie Blue Flag, the single white star on an azure field is a familiar sight to those who regularly drive Interstate 12 between Baton Rouge and the Mississippi state line. The flag is posted to signs along the roadway, which is also known as the West Florida Republic Parkway. By state law, the eight Florida Parishes must fly the Bonnie Blue over their courthouses, but because of a variety of misunderstandings, the flag has not always been displayed, and in some instances, the flag of the African nation of Somalia has appeared in its place.
When Mississippi broke away from the Union, the Bonnie Blue flew over that state’s secession convention, LSU history professor Gaines Foster said. During the Civil War, the design was incorporated into several new confederate state flags and military units’ battle flags, he continued.
The Bonnie Blue became a cultural touchstone in the South. Rebels sang a song also known as “The Bonnie Blue Flag” as they marched off for war. In the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind,” actress Cammie King played “Bonnie Blue” Butler, Rhett’s daughter.
So is Louisiana mandating that a symbol of the Confederacy fly over courthouses in Baton Rouge and other parish seats?
No, explained Southeastern Louisiana University professor Sam Hyde, director of the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies.
Part of the confusion is that state lawmakers got their history wrong.
The two 1990s statutes that demanded the display of the flag on the highway and over courthouses referred to it as the Bonnie Blue Flag of the West Florida Republic, a briefly independent territory that included Baton Rouge and seven other present-day parishes.
But the people of the republic would have called their standard the Lone Star Flag. While the precise color varied by maker, the Lone Star has a background hue of sky blue, while the Bonnie Blue is closer to navy, Hyde said.
The Lone Star was flown over Baton Rouge in 1810 when the West Florida Republic rose up in rebellion against Spanish rule during a dispute over the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase. By the end of the year, the Lone Star was replaced by the American flag as the territory was forcibly annexed by the United States.
The struggle against Spanish colonialism spread from there, and historians believe West Floridians may have migrated to Texas and brought the Lone Star with them, Hyde said.
The flag may have later appealed to Confederates in Mississippi as a symbol of independence and a fight against perceived oppression, the professor continued.
The Confederacy eventually spawned a number of flags, including the battle flag that has sparked a renewed focus on whether symbols associated with slavery and black segregation are appropriate in modern times. The debate has rolled across the South over the past week since the shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
Shooting suspect Dylann Roof appears to have written a racist manifesto and celebrated the Confederacy in his personal photos.
Critics of the flag have noted that at the time the victims lost their lives, the Confederate flag flew on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol and continues to do so, although lawmakers will soon debate taking it down.
As for the Bonnie Blue, it isn’t clear when the design took on that name, but it was some time between the Republic and the Mississippi secession, despite the Louisiana statutes’ confusion.
“(The Lone Star Flag) has absolutely nothing to do with the Confederacy,” Hyde said.
Still, courthouses in the Florida Parishes continue to fly flags featuring white stars and an array of background colors, some closer to the West Florida Republic banner, others closer to the Confederate design.
The most bizarre turn came in 1997 when an amateur historian alerted officials in St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes that they were in fact displaying the Somalian flag, yet another white star on a blue field.
The flags were replaced, though the light blue Somalian flag may have been closer to the West Florida flag than the dark blue version on the pole Wednesday. In Livingston Parish, the courthouse doesn’t have any flag depicting a white star on a blue field — Republican, Confederate, Somalian or otherwise.
The chief judge and district attorney were surprised to hear Livingston was in violation of state law. District Attorney Scott Perrilloux wryly wondered aloud what penalty the parish could expect for the transgression.
Chief Judge Robert Morrison doubts anyone would be offended by the Bonnie Blue because it’s likely that no one recognizes it or connects it to the Confederacy. But with the recent scrutiny of Confederate symbols, maybe having a courthouse with too few flag poles isn’t a bad thing.
“I guess we’re safe from criticism in (our) ignorance,” he said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.