United Kingdom

Official Black Country flag is BANNED by the fire service for fears it is linked to slavery

A flag celebrating the Black Country's industrial heritage has been banned by fire bosses who fear the chain symbol is linked to slavery.

The black, white and red design became the official flag of the Black Country, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, in 2012 after then 12-year-old schoolgirl Gracie Sheppard won a competition to design it. 

But fire stations in the West Midlands have been banned from flying the flag amid fears the design's chains depict slave shackles. 

Fire chiefs emailed staff at West Midlands Fire Service telling them not to fly the cloth until they had a 'clear meaning of the chains' depicted.

Chief fire officer Phil Loach said the service is 'absolutely clear on its position of supporting the campaign prompted by Black Lives Matter'.

Outraged MPs from across the region, who gathered to pose with the flag ahead of Black Country Day, have today demanded an apology from West Midlands Fire Service and called for the flag to be displayed outside stations 'with pride'. 

A flag celebrating the Black Country's industrial heritage has been banned by fire bosses who fear the chain symbol is linked to slavery. MP Stuart Anderson said: 'I would like to see an apology from whoever made this ridiculous decision and for all fire stations in Wolverhampton to be flying the Black Country flag with pride within a week'

The black, white and red design became the official flag of the Black Country, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, in 2012 after then 12-year-old schoolgirl Gracie Sheppard won a competition to design it (pictured with her father Dave Sheppard on Twitter)

 Outraged MPs from across the region, who gathered to pose with the flag ahead of Black Country Day, have today demanded an apology from West Midlands Fire Service and called for the flag to be displayed outside stations 'with pride'

What is the Black Country flag? 

The Black Country flag is a regional flag representing the Black Country - an area of the West Midlands.

It can be seen at landmarks across the region - including the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley - all year round, and is flown at many more places during the annual Black Country Festival in July and at even more on Black Country Day on July 14.

Gracie Sheppard, from Stourbridge, designed the flag during a competition in the run-up to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and Olympic Games in 2012. 

Its design was chosen by public vote in July 2012 and has been adopted by people from across the Black Country as a proud symbol of the area. The black, white and red flag has been spotted at England football matches, Glastonbury and even at a British Armed Forces base in Afghanistan.

The flag features a white upright triangular shape flanked either side by red and black colours.

The flag's chain represents the manufacturing heritage of the Black Country - specifically the chainmakers who were common during the area's heyday 

It also has a black and white chain with three links hanging across it. 

The flag's chain represents the manufacturing heritage of the area - specifically the chainmakers who were common during the Black Country's industrial heyday.

The white triangular shape is reminiscent of the glass cones (for example the Red House Cone in Wordsley) and iron furnaces common in Black Country architecture.

And the red and black colours were inspired by the words of Elihu Burrit, the American consul to Birmingham, who in 1862 described the region as 'black by day and red by night,' in reference to the industrial activity.

The email, sent before Black Country Day on July 13, read: 'It's 'Black Country Day' tomorrow. I'm not sure if any of your stations have asked permission to fly the Black Country flag outside their station but if so the answer is no.

'There may be a link to the chains on the flag and slavery so until we have a clear understanding of the meaning of the chains we have been asked not to fly the flag.'

Phil Loach, chief fire officer at West Midlands Fire Service, said the service was 'continuing to consider the information available about the flag' and that staff had been encouraged to celebrate the day in 'alternative ways'.

He said: 'Having been made aware of claims about the flag's imagery and the potential link to slavery, we asked our staff to celebrate Black Country Day in alternative ways on this occasion, so we could gain a fully rounded view. 

'West Midlands Fire Service is absolutely clear on its position of supporting the campaign prompted by Black Lives Matter... and is continuing to consider the information available about the flag.'

The flag was the centre of a row in 2017 when Mr Anderson's predecessor Eleanor Smith said it had 'racist connotations' due to its black and white imagery and chains. 

Previously, Wolverhampton-born activist Patrick Vernon said the flag was 'offensive and insensitive' and called for it to be replaced with a more 'multicultural' image.

But Stuart Anderson, MP for Wolverhampton South West, said: 'I am absolutely disgusted. This week we had the Prime Minister wishing everyone a 'happy Black Country Day', we should be able to fly the flag whenever we want.

'It is certainly not something we should hide from. 

'The fire service is making this too political. I would like to see an apology from whoever made this ridiculous decision and for all fire stations in Wolverhampton to be flying the Black Country flag with pride within a week.'

Dudley South MP Mike Wood said: 'This is a huge own goal by the fire service. Gracie Sheppard's Black Country flag has provided a real focal point for community spirit across the Black Country and I would have thought that would be something that the fire service would want to be promoting rather than blocking.'

Marco Longhi, Dudley North MP, said he was 'disappointed and angry' to hear that fire chiefs were 'attacking a piece of art that reflects our proud industrial heritage'.

Why is the Black Country flag controversial? 

Patrick Vernon described the flag as 'offensive and insensitive'

In 2015, social commentator and political activist Patrick Vernon described the flag as 'offensive and insensitive' and said its chains were a 'disturbing' image of an industry that profited from the transatlantic slave trade and colonial rule in Africa.

Mr Vernon, who grew up in Wolverhampton, claimed the Black Country had shied away from addressing the role its industries played in slavery - saying the chains were often used as shackles for slaves.

Labour MP Eleanor Smith called for the flag to be scrapped over its 'offensive' imagery

And the debate was brought up again in 2017 when Labour MP Eleanor Smith called for the flag to be scrapped over its 'offensive' imagery.

Ms Smith, the MP for Wolverhampton South West, used her maiden speech in the House of Commons to defend her stance, questioning whether it should be the Black Country's 'only brand image'.

However thousands of people, including Ms Smith's parliamentary Labour colleagues from the Black Country, disagree and say the flag represents a key part of the region's manufacturing heritage.

The issue returned in 2020 when West Midlands Fire Service banned its stations from flying the flag on Black Country Day due to 'claims about the flag's imagery and the potential link to slavery'. The service said it was 'continuing to consider the information available about the flag.'

He added: 'The Black Country flag is known all over the world, it is a great shame these bosses seem to have no understanding of what it represents and what it means to the people of the Black Country. 

'I suggest that the fire brigade bosses reflect on their decision and instruct local fire stations to fly the flag with pride.

'I also believe an apology is due to Gracie Sheppard who designed the flag when she was a schoolgirl. This is political correctness gone mad and will no doubt anger the vast majority of Black Country folk.

'I am more than happy to meet with the out-of-touch bosses, who have tried to politicise the Black Country flag, to aid their understanding of our proud history and traditions. I will continue to fly my Black Country Flag in Westminster.'

MP Shaun Bailey said: 'It's an absolute joke. The fact is that chain-making is part of the Black Country's heritage, but it is also important to remember that the chains in the flag represent the links between our diverse communities.

'I am proud of the flag. Anyone who says that it should not be flown has completely misunderstood what it is about and what it represents.'

Ian Austin, who displayed the flag in Parliament when he was the MP for Dudley North, said: 'Of course we should discuss our country's history and its role in the slave trade, but rank and file fire fighters and local people will think this is ridiculous.

One Black Country firefighter told the E&S: 'A lot of anger has been caused for the sake of jumping on some politically correct bandwagon.' 

The chain across the flag's centre represents the chain industry in the region, as well as the linking up of the different communities.

As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, working-class people in the Black Country did forge chains and shackles used during the slave trade era - but it is uncertain whether the workers knew what the products were for.

Other emergency services across the region have this week flown the flag.

West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson marked Black Country Day by tweeting an image of the flag along with '#BlackCountryDay #Bostin'.

Meanwhile St John Ambulance volunteers in Dudley posted pictures of themselves 'flying the flag with pride'. 

Co-founder of Black Country Day Steve Edwards said nothing about the Black Country flag was intended to be associated with slavery.

He said: 'The Black Country name is nothing to do with race or ethnicity. And the imagery or colours of the Black Country Flag are not intended to be linked to slavery.

'To cause offence intention is important and there is no intention to offend anyone with the Black Country Flag. If I am honest most people I speak to are not offended.

'But that doesn't mean questions can not be asked of The Black Country region or the symbolism behind the Black Country Flag.

'We shouldn't blindly beat our chest in defence of both the flag or the region without knowing its history. I am proud to fly the Black Country Flag.' 

Co-founder of Black Country Day Steve Edwards said nothing about the Black Country flag was intended to be associated with slavery. He said: 'The Black Country name is nothing to do with race or ethnicity. And the imagery or colours of the Black Country Flag are not intended to be linked to slavery. To cause offence intention is important and there is no intention to offend anyone with the Black Country Flag. If I am honest most people I speak to are not offended'

Other emergency services across the region have this week flown the flag. West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson marked Black Country Day by tweeting an image of the flag along with '#BlackCountryDay #Bostin'. Meanwhile St John Ambulance volunteers in Dudley posted pictures of themselves 'flying the flag with pride'

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