Whether you’ve ever seen it flying or not, Knoxville has had a city flag for 120 years—120 years this week, in fact. 

The Knoxville City Flag has gotten some new attention recently, partly thanks to the Museum of East Tennessee History’s recent exhibit of the work of artist Lloyd Branson, who designed it, and partly from the city’s celebration of its 225th anniversary. It was designed in 1896, a little urgently, to fly over the Knoxville Building at Nashville’s Centennial Exposition in 1897. 

We recently ran across an account of the presentation of the flag to Mayor Sam Heiskell, at City Hall, which was then on Market Square. The ceremony was in October, 1896. The fellow given the honor of making the formal presentation was one of Knoxville’s most eloquent citizens, lawyer and author Joshua Caldwell. It’s a quotable speech, and here are some of our favorite parts:

“The spirit which prompts the adoption of a city flag cannon be too highly recommended. Among the greatest needs in this time is more earnest and vigilant attention to home government….

"A Roman emperor might spread his legions from the North Seas to the Nile, and hold the civilized world in an iron grasp; a Napoleon might crush under the weight of his grand armies. But these were governments of force. Ours is a government of the people, a free government; the freest that ever existed. We rule ourselves in love of our country. We submit to no force, save the force of duty. Our standing army is the virtue of the people. 

"Recognizing the supreme right and power of the Federal government, claiming for the States every function guaranteed by the Constitution, we demand for each community the right under the Constitution to shape its own affairs. We must awake, and throughout the country, we are awakening to the unspeakable importance of honest and efficient local government. 

“The excellent custom of adopting civic flags is a manifestation of a widespread quickening of the civic conscience….

“We hail with profound pleasure the awakening of this spirit in Knoxville. There is no more attractive city than ours, none more substantial, none more independent or self-sustaining. But there are many that have been more progressive. If we have one fault more conspicuous than others, it is excessive conservatism. But after all this is natural enough. Nature has done so much for us that we have not felt the need of helping ourselves. We have grown and prospered without effort. And therefore we have not developed the feeling of fellowship … the reciprocal goodwill and helpfulness which united effort begets…. Local pride and patriotism have been dormant, but at last they are aroused and energized. We now know that if we would prosper as we are entitled, if we would have our beautiful city to increase and flourish, to do her duty, and to fulfill her destiny, we must work, and work together earnestly and without ceasing….

"I verily believe that Knoxville is in better condition than any other city in the South, but…we may not always and for all purposes rely upon the incomparable advantages that nature has given us.

"We are, at present, manifesting a community of sentiment, of purpose, and of effort, heretofore unknown in our history. Never before have we seen our people so harmonious, son enthusiastic, so hard at work….

"I present to Knoxville through you its Chief Magistrate [Mayor Heiskell, that is] this beautiful flag, designed by an artist of rare talent, who was born and reared in our midst [Lloyd Branson]. … Receive the flag with my hearty felicitations and best wishes, and with the goodwill of all our people. I invoke upon your administration, and upon our dear city, every uplifting and benign influence. 

"I trust that before this flag shall have passed to the keeping of your successor, it will have become the flag of one united Knoxville—a Knoxville that will be far advanced on her way towards... prosperity and the greatness…"