Is the Betsy Ross Flag Racist? Meaning, History and Symbolism Behind U.S.A.'s 13-Star Flag

An American flag featuring a 13-star circle was at the epicenter of controversy after Nike decided to stop the release of a sneaker featuring the symbol. The special-edition Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July was set to hit retail stores in honor of the upcoming holiday. However, in a surprise move, the sneaker giant opted to pull the shoe after being advised of its offensiveness by brand ambassador and former NFL star Colin Kaepernick.

Is the Betsy Ross Flag Racist? Meaning, History and Symbolism Behind U.S.A.'s 13-Star Flag
A Henry Mosler painting 'The Birth of the Flag' depicts Betsy Ross and her assistants sewing the first American flag, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1777. Lambert/Getty Images

Kaepernick reportedly told Nike he and others found the symbol offensive due to its connection to the United States' slavery era, according to The Wall Street Journal, who first reported the story Tuesday. In more recent times, the flag has been used as a symbol by white supremacist and nationalist groups.

The flag is believed to be a design by a woman named Betsy Ross around the height of the American Revolution in the mid-to-late 1770s, leading to its nickname, Betsy Ross Flag. However, the true history of the flag's origin is a bit murky.

As historians tell it, Ross, whose cousin was a friend of George Washington, was visited by the would-be first president and commissioned to create the flag in 1776. There had been a flag design already in use, depicting the 13 colonies as 13 six-pointed stars situated in a circle, but it was allegedly Ross' five-point star design that Washington favored.

While general perception has held Ross was solely responsible for designing the flag, some scholars have suggested she was just one of many seamstresses in Pennsylvania at the time that took part in the project.

The story of the flag's design first became a topic of discussion several years after its creation, when Ross's grandson William J. Canby delivered a document to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870 claiming his grandmother was responsible for the flag design, according to the 2008 Smithsonian history, The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon.

Ross, the daughter of a Quaker carpenter, ran an upholstery shop with her husband in a home they rented in Philadelphia. The couple was known for making cartridges and flags for the Continental Army, and it was rumored Ross even designed bed hangings for Washington in 1774, according to Pennsylvania's historical organization, Historic Pennsylvania.

Nonetheless, there are no official government records of the flag's creation until June 14, 1777, when the Continental Congress approved the flag "shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, while on a blue field, representing a new constellation," according to the Library of Congress. Ross' name isn't mentioned in the document, although this may simply be attributable to the biases of the era.

While the flag initially featured 13 stars to represent the 13 colonies, the flag has been updated 27 times over the years to include new states added into the union. The flag presently on display across America was introduced after Hawaii became the 50th state in August 1959.

For some, the Betsy Ross flag is just a reminder of the country's history. Still, its origin is steeped in a time period where America was a slavery-driven and openly racist country. The values of that era persist within American culture, with white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan using the Betsy Ross Flag in its propaganda in more recent times.

Um. You know those 13 stars represent the 13 colonies? And that flag was first used in 1792? I think it’s safe to say it was *always* used by white supremacists, not just appropriated by current ones.

— Ryan Dalton (@capetownbrown) July 2, 2019

The group passed out mini Betsy Ross Flags in a New York town in 2018 in addition to the typically used Confederate Flag and candy, according to The New York Times. It also used images of the flag in a letter sent to a campus newspaper in Washington in 2017.

The flag also caused a stir in Michigan in 2016 after a gaggle of young white men waved the Betsy Ross Flag during a high school football game. The incident led a school district superintendent to issue an apology after some families pointed out their discomfort with the flag and the NCAAP noted the flag's adoption by extremist groups.

Some KKK groups in Georgia were found to have required members use the Betsy Ross Flag during ritualistic meetings if not a Confederate Flag, an Albany Herald investigation discovered in 2013.