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Decades later, Juneteenth flag creator shares story behind beloved symbol

Ben Haith poses for a portrait with a Juneteenth flag, he created over 20 years ago, outside his home in Norwich, Conn., on June 14, 2022.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In 2000, the Juneteenth flag made its debut in a ceremony at Roxbury’s Dillaway-Thomas House. As the banner rose to the sky, its creator recalled, “it felt like a child being born.”

“I didn’t know what was going to happen to this [flag] here,” said Ben Haith of Norwich, Conn., a former Roxbury social worker and anti-violence activist. “But then it gradually started to crawl, like a child.”

Over the next 22 years, as Juneteenth grew from a regional commemoration of emancipation in East Texas to a national celebration of Black liberation and empowerment, Haith’s starburst-emblazoned flag accompanied it. Now, you can buy the red, white, and blue banners on Amazon, find it on shirts and bumper stickers, and see it flying above state houses across the country this weekend.

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And last year, Haith, 79, flipped on the TV and watched US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and Grandmother of Juneteenth, Opal Lee, rejoice as President Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

“I was overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s just one thing after another. I haven’t even had time to process it.”

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas learned of their emancipation. Celebrated on June 19 each year, descendants of enslaved Black people and allies honor the event with homecomings, parades, and more. At most Juneteenth events, Haith’s flag flies high.

Steve Williams, president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which was instrumental in getting the holiday national and statewide recognition, said having a universal flag has helped Black Americans and allies rally together to spread awareness and officiate the special celebration.

“It’s an important symbol for unification, and one people can wrap themselves around,” Williams said. “It doesn’t deny [Black people’s] place in America; it exemplifies it.”

Though Haith’s creation has become synonymous with the holiday, his childhood exposure to Juneteenth was limited. Born and raised in Stamford, Conn. to a domestic worker and a metal junkman, Haith grew up with his mom and aunt’s fond memories of Juneteenth celebrations down South. He can’t remember specific details of what they told him, but he does recall that “the sound of it” captivated him.

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“People raised in the South knew about [Juneteenth], but up where I lived, you didn’t hear anything about it,” Haith said. “Certainly not in school, or any place.”

Haith moved to Boston in the ‘70s, and built a reputation as a Roxbury community activist. He ran for city councilor, and in 1985 became entangled in controversy after he voiced concerns about two gay foster parents in Roxbury, and the the state later removed the children from their custody.

“What happened happened, and it’s not relevant to my story anymore,” he said. “The [LGBTQ+ community] has made strides, and you don’t hear from me about it now because I don’t want to be in the way of it.”

In the early ‘90s, as descendants of the Great Migration kept the their ancestors’ traditions alive, Haith noticed a growing number of people celebrating Juneteenth in Boston. After learning the holiday didn’t have a symbol, he said he took on the task of making one.

“I just thought it was important, and the next thing I knew, it became a project,” Haith said.

Haith had worked in New York City’s marketing and advertising scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, where he said he learned how to create clean, attractive designs that delivered a clear message. One campaign he worked on became the 100 Grand candy bar. Deploying those skills in his new civic undertaking, Haith set out to make a symbol that encapsulated the holiday.

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Haith devoted several years to his project, and founded the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, a Boston-based, now-dissolved Juneteenth organization, along the way. Some peers didn’t understand his passion, Haith said.

“They would say, ‘It’s not worth it,’” he recalled. “‘No one really cares.’”

Haith also reached out to different artists and picked friends’ brains for feedback. Some initial flag ideas had triggering, sobering material, like “a symbol for lynching,” he said.

“The symbols were angry,” and didn’t seem appropriate for a holiday that celebrates ancestors’ perseverance, Haith said. “I just moved on.”

He said he chose red, white, and blue — the same colors of the US flag — to capture enslaved Black people’s connection to the nation’s history. Some disagreed with using the color scheme to convey Juneteenth because of America’s ongoing oppression of Black people, Haith said, but he insisted.

“Our ancestors helped build this country, so our flag should have those colors, too,” Haith said.

Between the red and blue lies a curving arc, which he said symbolizes a horizon of endless possibilities freed Black people looked forward to. The white star in the middle pays homage to the Texas state flag, Haith said.

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In 1997, the first version of the Juneteenth flag was flown at the Dillaway-Thomas House. Haith still wasn’t satisfied with it, and wanted to refine his symbol. Amid discussions with some designers, local artist Lisa Jeanne Graf reached out and offered her help.

Graf, who has worked as an illustrator and graphic designer for nearly 40 years, declined to comment on her contributions to the Juneteenth flag design, saying it was Haith’s creation.

As Haith recalls it, while drafting designs, he had stumbled on the long-running PBS science documentary “NOVA” and envisioned the pattern that centers the flag today — the Texas star contained in a “nova burst.”

“I saw that ‘nova’ meant a new star, something coming into being,” Haith recalled. “I thought, ‘That might be something our ancestors can relate to.’”

Haith said Graf helped turn that idea into a graphic. The pair met at a restaurant near the office where he worked as a case manager for veterans experiencing homelessness. He thumbed through a portfolio of Graf’s iterations. A banner with a blue sky, red horizon, and a white star inside his envisioned “nova burst” jumped out at him.

“‘I said, ‘This is the one,’” Haith recalled. “‘That looks like a flag to me.’”

After the 2000 flag raising ceremony, the date June 19, 1865 was added to the banner’s right side in white letters.

As Juneteenth has grown from small jubilees by formerly enslaved people to a federal holiday, companies have used the flag in their marketing. Haith said he doesn’t receive any money for the flag.

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As more people learn about Juneteenth, Haith said he hopes that people around the world will be inspired by the flag and use it to navigate their own struggles.

“We’ve come a long way, but I think people from all over the world are going to be able to relate to Juneteenth,” Haith said. “It’ll be more than just what happened.”

Because “Juneteenth is only going to get bigger.”



Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.