There’s one thing some Howard County residents do not want forgotten: The county is a farming and agriculture hub, and its flag pays tribute to that with a shock of wheat in the upper-left corner.

But when the flag was designed in 1968, it was a different time. The U.S. had not yet landed on the moon and the Beatles were about to break up. The county looked a little different, too.

Now, 55 years after the same flag design was adopted, County Executive Calvin Ball has decided it’s time for a change. Last week, he created a 19-member flag commission to begin the search for a new flag design, with significant input from the public.

And the public had plenty to say.

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One of the most repeated fears expressed on a Facebook livestream of the press conference announcement was concern that a new flag would erase the county’s agricultural history.

Howie Feaga, a born-and-raised Glenelg resident and farmer, said he would hate to see a new flag leave out agriculture. Although the current flag isn’t the most attractive, he said, he would at least like to see the current elements stay on the flag in a new design, but better designed.

“I was always told that we are the only county that does not border another state, or a body of water, which makes us truly the heart of Maryland,” Feaga said. “So if they actually wanted to change what it looks like, maybe they should somehow configure a heart in there.”

Many questioned the timing of the design, given the looming $103.8 million school budget shortfall.

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“Calvin wasting time and money in another of his attacks on rural Howard County — he’s canceling the county flag,” Christopher Stanton commented on Facebook.

“Appropriate use of funds,” Darla DiNizo Slade commented on the Facebook livestream. “They can reprint all our flags, stationery, business cards, redo the website with all the money they’re saving by cutting teachers, GT [Gifted and Talented], music & library funding!🤬🤯”

People left dozens of other comments as well, including complaints about overcrowded hospitals and the lack of a professional graphic designer on the committee.

“Why do they not have a single graphic designer on the committee? There’s gotta be numerous exceptional graphic designers in Howard County that could come up with an amazing, non-offensive design in an afternoon,” Trevor Greene said.

Ball said it’s time to change the flag because the county has changed so much since its creation, and it needs to align with current values.

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“I think that it should reflect who we are today and where we’re going,” Ball said. “We are a diverse community that embraces opportunity as a place for everyone to be able to live, work, play, grow and thrive. We’re a place that embraces aging with grace as well as creating the best future for the generation.”

The current flag includes the same red and white bottony cross design seen on the Maryland state flag. The bottony cross design is the Crossland family coat of arms, which is the maternal side of the first Lord Baltimore, George Calvert, according to the Maryland Secretary of State website. The black and yellow section seen on the state flag is Calvert’s paternal family’s coat of arms.

And there’s more history to it. On the state flag, the Crossland coat of arms became synonymous with Maryland-born Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. After President Abraham Lincoln was elected, “red and white ‘secession colors’ appeared on everything from yarn stockings and cravats to children’s clothing. People displaying these red-and-white symbols of resistance to the Union and to Lincoln’s policies were vigorously prosecuted by Federal authorities,” according to the Maryland Secretary of State website.

In the bottom right white space of the Howard County flag, there is also an outline of the county in a golden triangle. In the top left, there’s a golden sheaf of wheat, referencing the county’s agricultural background.

Barb Glenn, the Howard County Farm Bureau vice president who is on the commission, said she’s pleased to be on the committee and that although she loves the reference to agriculture on the current flag, it is “always good to modernize a flag or other aspects of county government.”

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She said she would be disappointed, however, if the final design did not contain agricultural elements.

Glenn said there are numerous ways to represent agriculture on a flag: “One is with food, but generally, there’s a landscape, a barn, open fields, rolling fields, that sort of is a representation, but the sky’s the limit. This is a public process. We’ll urge some of our best ‘aggies’ to contribute designs so that we have have our farming represented.”

She said she looks forward to seeing what the other industries would like to have represented on the flag.

The chair of the commission, Coleen West, who is also the executive director of the Howard County Arts Council, said she hasn’t gotten any negative feedback from residents, and with professional art experience, she is excited to have a part in choosing a new design.

“As a visual artist-turned-administrator, it’s a form of public art,” West said. “It’s a form of civic pride, but it’s in the public domain.”

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The committee has not yet met to begin the process of choosing a new design, but West said she thinks “our panel will be thoughtful and deliberate and open to everyone’s opinion on the commission.”

Ball said he has heard countywide excitement about a new flag, and he made sure to have representatives from every council district and a representative from the farm bureau on the commission.

He said he’s “opening it up to a transparent contest where there could be more farming in the new flag.”

The commission includes the Howard County Arts Council executive director; four county residents recommended by the County Council; the Howard County Lynching Truth & Reconciliation Inc. executive director; the Columbia Association archivist; representatives from the African American Community Roundtable of Howard County; the Asian American Pacific Islander Commission; the LGBTQIA+ commission; and the La Alianza Latina commission. There are also members from the library system, community college, the county chamber of commerce, the tourism council and the faith community.

Also included are two representatives from the Howard County Historical Society, including Mark Stout, the executive director. Stout said he’s heard concerns that a new flag will not represent the county’s agricultural past, but that won’t be the case.

“We want it to reflect the changes in the county,” he said. “It’s a very different place than it was in 1968, and it’s much more diverse, it’s much larger — there’s not as much focus on agriculture, obviously, especially with the advent of Columbia.”

He said the basic premise is that the county has changed, and a competition open to the public could help accurately reflect those changes.

The commission will have its first meeting, which is open to the public, on Feb. 6, and they will discuss voting requirements and guidelines for the design evaluations, Ball said.

Ball said the portal to submit designs will be closed by September, and by Feb. 7 of next year, the commission will submit three final designs to him.

Abby Zimmardi is the 2023 investigative reporting fellow for The Baltimore Banner. Zimmardi earned her master’s degree from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in December 2022. 

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