How the Virgin Islands Got Their Flag

VI flag
Official Flag of the United States Virgin Islands

The Virgin Islands flag features a yellow eagle on a white field between the large blue letters, “V” and “I”. The United States shield of vertical red and white stripes below a blue panel is superimposed on the eagle’s breast, and the mighty winged predator clutches a bundle of three blue arrows representing the three Virgin Islands in one claw and an olive branch in the other. Did you ever wonder why these peaceful, tropical islands, over 1,000 miles away from the nearest eagle, are symbolized by such a austere and militaristic-looking flag?

On March 31, 1917 the government of the United States of America paid the European nation of Denmark $25,000,000 for the right to govern the people and utilize the resources of a group of islands in the northeast Caribbean then called the Danish West Indies.

The islands and its people were put under the authority of United States Navy from whose ranks a governor would be appointed by the President of the United States and given “all military, civil and judicial powers,” which, of course, included the power to adopt a new territorial flag. This task was eventually undertaken by Naval Governor, Rear Admiral, Sumner E.W. Kittelle in 1921.

When it came to selecting a design for the new flag, Governor Kittelle did not ask for the opinions of Virgin Islanders, nor did he select a Virgin Islander to be the artist. The design and layout of the Virgin Islands flag was instead delegated to a sailor serving under the Rear Admiral’s command.

This was not surprising given the attitudes and philosophies of both the Navy and Governor Kittelle. Although the overwhelming majority of Virgin Islanders were of African descent, the Department of the Navy, which was put in charge of the islands, was an all-white organization that practiced a policy of segregation until 1920, when it was decided to exclude blacks altogether. Kittelle came from the segregated southern United States and appeared to harbor a somewhat racist philosophy, demonstrating a lack of confidence in, and fear of, non-whites. For example, in a letter to President Warren Harding Kittelle expressed his opinion about allowing Virgin Islanders to have a say in the government. He wrote, “I cannot too strongly urge that no change be made in the organic law until a full generation has elapsed…and above all the white element must remain in the lead and in supreme control.

On May 17, 1921 the governor issued the following executive order: ‘By virtue of the authority vested in me… the following local flag is adopted for the Virgin Islands.”

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