Not a member? Become one today!
         iBerkshires     Williamstown Chamber     Williams College     Your Government     Land & Housing Debate
Williamstown's Town Flag a Topic of Discussion
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
11:57AM / Sunday, March 10, 2024
Print | Email  

Williamstown's Planning Board sits in the town hall meeting room in front of the town's flag.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Nine years after its adoption, the town flag continues to come under scrutiny.
And one of the people involved in its creation agrees that if someone wants to change the flag, they should.
The flag adopted by the Select Board in January 2015 includes imagery of three Berkshire hills in the background, trees, the year of the town's charter (1765), the town's name, a furrowed field, the words "Culture, Education, Nature," and, at its center, a depiction of the 1753 House, a replica of a colonial-era structure that was built on Field Park for the town's bicentennial.
There are only two known copies of the flag in existence: one at the State House and one in the meeting room on the first floor at town hall.
It was in the second location that the imagery on the flag has drawn the attention of the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee, which most recently noted the emblem at its Monday meeting.
During a discussion of a proposed town meeting warrant article to amend the flag bylaw adopted at last May's meeting, DIRE Committee member Andrew Art said the town flag itself runs afoul of that bylaw because it is affixed to a town structure and not on the short list of flags approved for that use: the American flag, the flag of the commonwealth and the POW/MIA flag listed in the May 2023 bylaw.
Art was making a point that the list of approved flags ought to include the flag of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, whose ancestors were the first known inhabitants of the land where Williamstown now exists.
"While, at the same time, I'm staring at the town flag, behind you, which centers on its field the regulation house of a settlement, a colonial settlement, on those lands," said Art, who participated in the meeting remotely and was watching the video feed from town hall.
When Justine Beringer, a relatively recent addition to the panel, asked whether the flag Art indicated is actually the official town flag, DIRE Committee veteran Noah Smalls replied.
"Yes, that is the official Williamstown flag," Smalls said. "We have all had the time to process and come to a better understanding of the flag and how it came to be. So take your time. It might require a moment or two to take hold of it."
Ultimately, the committee decided to have Art send an email to the town manager asking that the flag be removed from the meeting room in accordance with the bylaw.
As Smalls indicated, it was not the first time the flag, with its recognition of the town's colonial origin, has come up in a DIRE Committee meeting.
Six years before the DIRE Committee existed, the topic of whether the town needed a flag and what it should look like filled a lot of time at Select Board meetings.
For more than 200 years, no one gave much thought to having a town flag. But in 2014, a request came from one of the town's representatives on Beacon Hill that the town create one so it could be included in the collection of municipal flags on Beacon Hill and displayed in the capital's Hall of Flags.
The request generated months of discussion, an appeal for submissions of flag ideas from residents, an ad hoc committee, an online survey and, ultimately, a vote to adopt the current flag. And, since the town was paying to have one cloth version created — for the State House — it went ahead and ordered a second to be displayed in the meeting room.
At the time, none of the hours of discussion on the potential flag design included a conversation about whether the image of the 1753 House was problematic.
"The world has changed, and Williamstown's world has changed dramatically in the 10 years since that flag was developed and then approved," said Tom Sheldon, a member of the Select Board in 2015 who served on the committee that brought the flag design to that body. "My own consciousness of things has changed, and, for anyone who is paying attention to life in Williamstown, it's different, too.
"Which is not to say that the 1753 House is anathema and should be burned to the ground. But it carries additional meanings now than we were sensitive to back then. I'd be the first to admit that. It's a different world, and if people want to change the flag, I'd understand and say, 'Go for it.' "
Much has changed in the way Williamstown residents think about the occupation of indigenous lands by the people who founded the town.
In May 2017, town meeting voted to change the name of an October holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day, a change the Legislature later made for the commonwealth in 2023.
 In July 2020, town residents took down a sign on Main Street that identified a neighborhood as "Colonial Village."
• In the fall of 2020, Williams College removed murals depicting the college and town's namesake, Ephraim Williams, a veteran of the French and Indian War, and the town's 1753 House Committee added language to the sign near the structure on Field Park identifying the land as the homelands of the Mohican people.
• In October 2021, a public art display shrouded the 1753 House in an effort to make people think about the Mohican's experience at the time of Indigenous Peoples Day.
• Last July, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians President Shannon Holsey spoke at the town's Independence Day celebration.
• And when the Department of Transportation named a new recreation trail the "Mohawk Trail," during its construction, protests from town residents led to the removal of those signs, and the town later dubbed the path the Mohican Trail.
None of the Select Board debate at the time of the flag's adoption included a discussion of the indigenous people displaced by the colonists and what the 1753 House could represent. Sheldon does not recall hearing anyone raise those issues to the committee and suspects, if they had, the flag would have turned out differently.
"The 1753 House was a piece of relevant history, but it wasn't one of the organizing themes of the flag," Sheldon said. "The others mentioned were: natural beauty, education, agriculture. Those are the ones we wanted to reflect on. History was just not one of the organizing concepts.
"At that point … the 1753 House was just kind of iconic. If you were to pick one thing in Williamstown that was not a college building, that would be the thing everyone would recognize. It was, in my view, an understandable element in the design — not necessarily as an effort to represent history, but that it was a commonly held image."
He said he "100 percent" agreed with the notion that the flag would have been different if anyone had objected to the inclusion of the 1753 House at the time.
"I can explain to anyone who wants to know how the flag came to be, but I would be the first one to admit that things are so substantially different now, and I understand why questions are arising," Sheldon said. "It's appropriate that they do. And however the sentiments lie on that, it's a fair question to raise."
The topic of flags came before the DIRE Committee on Monday when committee and Select Board member Randal Fippinger reported he is working with members of the Gender Sexuality Alliance at Mount Greylock Regional School on a proposal to add the Pride Progress flag to the list of flags acceptable for display on town flag poles and buildings. Fippinger said the group is aiming to put an article on May's annual town meeting warrant to amend the 2023 bylaw.
Art raised the issue of whether the Stockbridge-Munsee flag ought to be added to that list given the nation's historical claim to the town's lands.
In other business on Monday, the DIRE Committee:
• Discussed the panel's place in the town budget and advocated that rather than receiving funds at the discretion of the Select Board, money should be identified specifically in a town budget line item for DIRE Committee programs.
• Heard a call from Chair Shana Dixon for more recognition and education locally during future Black History Months.
• And talked about whether and how to revive the committee's Facebook group, which currently is paused.
More Featured Stories is owned and operated by: Boxcar Media 102 Main Sreet, North Adams, MA 01247 -- T. 413-663-3384
© 2011 Boxcar Media LLC - All rights reserved