Express & Star

Fire stations banned from flying Black Country flag on region's special day

Fire stations were banned from flying the region's flag on Black Country Day after chiefs said there could be a "link to slavery".

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The Black Country flag has been flown across the region for Black Country Day

An email, leaked to the Express & Star, was circulated to employees at West Midlands Fire Service telling them not to fly the Black Country flag until bosses had "a clear meaning of the chains" depicted on them.

Outraged Black Country MPs today called for the fire service to apologise and fly the flag outside stations with pride.

The email, sent the day before Black Country Day on July 13 from a boss at WMFRS, read: "It's 'Black Country Day' tomorrow. I'm not sure if any of your stations have asked permission to fly the Black Country flag outside their station but if so the answer is no.

"There may be a link to the chains on the flag and slavery so until we have a clear understanding of the meaning of the chains we have been asked not to fly the flag."

The Union Flag and a flag for key workers outside Haden Cross Fire Station this week

Phil Loach, chief fire officer at West Midlands Fire Service, said the service was "continuing to consider the information available about the flag" and that staff had been encouraged to celebrate the day in "alternative ways".

Mr Loach said: “We’re proud of being an inclusive fire and rescue service, with staff from all walks of life who serve many diverse communities across the West Midlands - the bostin’ Black Country included!

“Many of my colleagues hail from the Black Country and, I know, are immensely proud to have been born, raised and to have families here.

“Having been made aware of claims about the flag’s imagery and the potential link to slavery, we asked our staff to celebrate Black Country Day in alternative ways on this occasion, so we could gain a fully rounded view.

“West Midlands Fire Service is absolutely clear on its position of supporting the campaign prompted by Black Lives Matter - which resonates directly and personally with a growing number of our staff - and is continuing to consider the information available about the flag.”

The Black Country flag features on a newly-released charity edition of Monopoly

Founder of Black Country Day Steve Edwards said nothing about the flag was intended to be a link to slavery.

He said: "The Black Country name is nothing to do with race or ethnicity. And the imagery or colours of the Black Country Flag are not intended to be linked to slavery.

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"To cause offence intention is important and there is no intention to offend anyone with the Black Country Flag. If I am honest most people I speak to are not offended.

"But that doesn’t mean questions can not be asked of The Black Country region or the symbolism behind the Black Country Flag.

"We shouldn’t blindly beat our chest in defence of both the flag or the region without knowing its history. I am proud to fly the Black Country Flag."

The flag flying above Dudley Castle

As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, working class people in the Black Country did forge chains and shackles used during the slave trade era – but it is uncertain whether the workers knew what the products were for.

The flag was designed by Gracie Sheppard, from Stourbridge, when she was aged 12. It features a glass cone flanked by black and red panels inspired by Elihu Burritt’s famous description of the area “black by day and red by night”.

The chain across its centre represents the chain industry in the region, as well as the linking up of the different communities, but has been surrounded by controversy in previous years.

In 2015, Wolverhampton-born anti-racism campaigner and historian Patrick Vernon described the flag as "offensive and insensitive" and said its chains were a"disturbing'" image of an industry that profited from the transatlantic slave trade and colonial rule in Africa.

Two years later, then-Wolverhampton MP Eleanor Smith said the flag had "racist" connotations and than it should be banned after refusing to have her picture taken with it outside the House of Commons.

Current MPs have now called on West Midlands Fire Service to apologise after its move prompted outrage from rank and file firefighters, who accused bosses of "jumping on some politically correct bandwagon".