Flag Day Has a Special Significance in Pennsylvania

You might think that few things would be more unifying than the American flag. Think again.

For four years, Delaware County native Thomas Kerr maintained a website celebrating the history of the American flag. But the site was largely a target for political fanaticism, so he took it down in 2022. “I got scared,” he says. “It saddened me completely.”

Kerr was uniquely equipped to create such a website. This month marks 75 years since his 83-year-old grandfather, William T. Kerr, finally swayed President Harry S. Truman to sign a Flag Day bill into law in August 1949. Kerr died in Yeadon four years later in 1953. His grandson was 8 at the time. “I remember he was always a stately gentleman, dressed in a three-piece suit with a pocket watch,” says Kerr. “He was a strong personality, a force of will. He had no secretary. He did it all himself.”

A retired career educator and administrator in multiple local school districts, the 79-year-old Kerr is retired and now lives in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts. But he’s never stopped saluting his family’s role in establishing Flag Day. It’s celebrated on June 14, but only in Pennsylvania is it considered a legal holiday. “It’s gone by the wayside,” Kerr laments. “Pennsylvania still does it because of what my grandfather did and what my father (Joseph Jackson Kerr) did in carrying it forward. He spoke wherever he was asked—then I did. But I began to sputter in carrying it forward.”

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In today’s politically charged climate, there are many who view the flag as a symbol of abuse and misuse. Mike Axelrod, former vice president of the Philadelphia Flag Day Association, sees the stigma as a misrepresentation. Established in 1934, the group bills itself as the nation’s oldest Flag Day association. Still, few organizations will contribute to patriotic programs. “What’s happened to the association—and Flag Day celebrations themselves—is endemic to all patriotic celebrations,” says Axelrod, who’s collected over 100 American flags and banners dating to the Civil War.

American flag
Photo by Jon Krause

Yeadon’s mayor, Rohan K. Hepkins, is adamant about continuing the borough’s Flag Day parade, despite a constituency more in favor of a Juneteenth celebration. In honor of the 75th anniversary, Hepkins has invited Gov. Josh Shapiro to march in the parade, which is scheduled for June 16. “We’re pulling out all stops,” he says. “You may not like it or feel you have anything in common with it, but the flag puts us on the map—and we’d be foolhardy not to embrace that.”

The way Hepkins sees it, Pennsylvania has the most patriotic Flag Day state for three reasons: Betsy Ross, who was once buried in the Yeadon side of Mount Moriah Cemetery; Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; and the Kerr family’s long years of commitment to the cause. “If I was the governor, I’d be championing that,” says Hepkins, who’s not optimistic about Shapiro appearing at the parade.

In all, William T. Kerr’s Flag Day efforts included meetings with seven U.S. presidents of both political parties. Woodrow Wilson, the first he inspired, issued a proclamation on May 30, 1916, suggesting that June 14 be the day of observance. For years, bills to make that official were introduced in Congress, only to die in committee.

But Kerr persisted. In 1927, he persuaded more than 188,000 kids to kick in a penny each to build a monument to Old Glory in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park for the 150th anniversary of the flag’s creation on June 14, 1777. A good portion of Kerr’s memorabilia was passed down to his grandson. There were countless letters from dignitaries, the pen Truman used to sign the bill, the U.S. flag that flew over the White House that day, and coins the Franklin Mint produced honoring Kerr. The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia has much of it now.

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Kerr’s grandfather accomplished all he did while employed in the freight division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, prompting his move east from Pittsburgh in 1929. Today, around Yeadon, you can still find commemorative plaques in his honor. At one point, the borough changed its street signs to recognize its status as home to the founder of Flag Day. “Back then, everyone felt community pride could build pride in the nation,” says Kerr. “That’s where Flag Day parades came in—and the fireworks. I remember marching and riding in the parades. I developed a really good wave, like royalty in England.”

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