FIRE chiefs have defended their decision not to fly the Black Country flag amid concerns about whether its design could be considered racist and offensive.

The flag, designed by former Stourbridge schoolgirl Gracie Sheppard when she was 12, was flown across the region on Black Country Day yesterday (July 14) – as it has been each year since the celebratory day came into existence in 2013.

Red, white and black in colour – the distinctive flag with chains symbolising the region’s historic industrial past was selected in a public vote in 2012 and it has been flown with pride in the Black Country and beyond, placed on top of mountains by adventurers and held by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on a recent visit to Dudley.

Dudley News: Mayor Andy Street with PM Boris JohnsonMayor Andy Street with PM Boris Johnson

Every once in a while, however, a debate ensues around whether the imagery of the flag is appropriate given the historic chain-making industry’s links to slavery.

Three years ago the Labour MP for Wolverhampton South West at the time, Eleanor Smith, said she felt “uneasy” about the image being the brand for the Black Country "on the grounds that it associates the Black Country with heritage industries rather than modern ones" and she said constituents had raised concerns about the flag and the image of a chain because of their historical use in the slave trade.

Now, the concerns have been brought back to the fore after a tweet accused fire service chiefs of refusing to fly the flag on fire stations around the region yesterday.

Bosses at West Midlands Fire Service have today defended their decision but Dudley North MP Marco Longhi said: “I am disappointed and angry to hear that fire brigade bosses are attacking a piece of art that reflects our proud industrial heritage.

Dudley News: MPs with the Black Country flag…front: Marco Longhi, Wendy Morton; middle: John Spellar, Suzanne Webb, Eddie Hughes; back: Stuart Anderson, Jane Stevenson, Mike Wood.MPs with the Black Country flag…front: Marco Longhi, Wendy Morton; middle: John Spellar, Suzanne Webb, Eddie Hughes; back: Stuart Anderson, Jane Stevenson, Mike Wood.

“The Black Country Flag is known all over the world, it is a great shame these bosses seem to have no understanding of what it represents and what it means to the people of the Black Country.

“I suggest that fire brigade bosses reflect on their decision and instruct local fire stations to fly the flag with pride. I also believe an apology is due to Gracie Sheppard who designed the flag when she was a schoolgirl. This is political correctness gone mad and will no doubt anger the vast majority of Black Country folk.

Dudley News: Gracie Sheppard pictured aged 12 with former Mayor of Dudley, Councillor Melvyn Mottram.Gracie Sheppard pictured aged 12 with former Mayor of Dudley, Councillor Melvyn Mottram.

“I am more than happy to meet with the out-of-touch bosses, who have tried to politicise the Black Country Flag, to aid their understanding of our proud history and traditions. I will continue to fly my Black Country Flag in Westminster.”

Phil Loach, chief fire officer of West Midlands Fire Service, 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.”

He said the 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 that it would continue to “consider the information available about the flag” after Steve Edwards, chairman of the Black Country Festival, took to Facebook to provide some background on the flag and Black Country history. 

Dudley News: Steve Edwards - chairman of the Black Country FestivalSteve Edwards - chairman of the Black Country Festival

Mr Edwards said: “There is no intention to offend anyone with the Black Country flag. It features a glass cone to represent the glass industry of the Black Country. The cone is flanked by black and red panels inspired by Elihu Burritt’s famous description of the area “black by day and red by night”, and the chain across the centre represents the chain industry in the region but is also to symbolise the linking up of the different communities.”

He urged commentators to take the time to “learn about the remarkably interesting history” of the Black Country, which these days is considered to span the four metropolitan boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, and how the Black Country men and women of the chain-making industry were paid a pittance to work in “squalid conditions” for wealthy bosses who profited from the slave trade.

He added: “This is not a case of pitting the plight of our Black Country ancestors against the horrendous treatment of the people who were enslaved. It is saying that in many cases working class Black Country people and Black slaves were victims of the very same people who profited from their labour.

“I am not an expert, just someone who loves the Black Country and exploring our history. I am proud to fly the Black Country flag.”