© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Family of 'Cleveland's Betsy Ross' opposes new city flag contest, tells her story

Cleveland Heights resident Kristen Fragassi sits for a photo holding one of the first flags manufactured using the design created by her great-grandmother Susan Hepburn.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Heights resident Kristen Fragassi sits for a photo holding one of the first Cleveland flags manufactured using the design created by her great-grandmother Susan Hepburn.

A stack of photos, paintings and artifacts are arranged neatly on Kristen Fragassi’s dining room table. The crown jewel is a more than 80-year-old flag draped across the chairs. The white at the center between the vibrant red and blue is yellowing, but the embroidered city crest is preserved perfectly.

The custom-made flag, presented to her great-grandmother in 1941, was a gift to the woman who designed it half a century before.

“This is a wheel, an anvil and a hammer representing manufacturing interests, upon which the city was built. And on the other corner there's an anchor, a windlass and oars, representing marine and commercial trade interests,” Fragassi said as she traced the flag with her finger.

Fragassi is the great-granddaughter of Susan Hepburn, coined “Cleveland’s Betsy Ross” for designing the first ever — and still remaining — official city flag.

Born in Ashtabula in 1873, Hepburn moved to Cleveland when she was four years old. She attended and graduated from the Cleveland Art School, now the Cleveland Institute of Art.

“She just was very artistic,” Fragassi said. “Apparently, all the neighborhood kids loved her, and she would teach kids how to draw and paint, … and she was just full of life.”

The idea of a city flag was first proposed in the late 1800s, when New York journalist Julian Ralph visited the city and was surprised to find, that unlike other major cities like Chicago and New York, Cleveland did not have a flag or any municipal symbols of its own, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

His suggestion was met with enthusiasm from local leaders, and soon after, the newspaper the Plain Dealer launched a contest soliciting designs, which 18-year-old Hepburn, then living in Columbus, won in 1895.

Shortly after, a reporter from the paper delivered the prize money.

“What happened is when he delivered the 50 silver dollars, the container containing them, — they were heavy and they broke and they went all over the living room. And so Susie and Robert were down on their hands and knees picking up all these spare silver dollars. And a year later they got married and had four children,” Fragassi said of her great-grandparents.

The couple moved to the city’s East Side, where they resided for more than 60 years.

Hepburn’s story is one that is clearly important to her family, but Fragassi argues it matters for the rest of the city, too, which is why she’s opposed to a campaign for a new city flag.

“I think that my great-grandmother would be all for supporting creativity and art interests in the city, but I just worry about the expense and the tossing aside of history,” Fragassi said.

Hepburn's design has already been altered once when the city's motto, "Progress and Prosperity," was later added.

Cleveland Flag Project co-organizer Brian Lachman says the group, which is running the flag design contest through July 19, has no intention of erasing Hepburn’s legacy. Their website includes her story, as well as those of other civic symbols.

A group is leading the charge to design a new city flag to display in government buildings, businesses and homes across Cleveland.

“I think if anything, we're hopefully getting Susan Hepburn's name out more than ever before because at the end of the day, the overwhelming feedback from the people of Cleveland that I've spoken with and we've got results from is that they didn't really know we had a Cleveland flag,” Lachman said.

The current flag is largely unrecognizable and isn’t a prominent symbol throughout the city, he added.

Councilmember Kerry McCormack said he flies Cleveland’s flag, but not many others in his ward do.

“Obviously the city is much different than it was in the late 1800s,” McCormack said. “If this is something that can stir up civic pride and get people engaged, then great.”

But where others may see this civic symbol as out of date, Fragassi is determined to rally behind her great-grandmother’s legacy.

“I'm all for creative ways to promote the city and so on, however, this I view as an exercise in revisionist history to just toss a symbol of the history of Cleveland aside,” she said.

She plans to speak before City Council to make the case on behalf of her family.

In the meantime, Cleveland-area residents may submit their designs to www.cleflag.org. Organizers said three finalists will receive a $1,000 cash prize. Then, Clevelanders will vote on their favorite, including Hepburn’s original design, before the Flag Project team pitches it to Cleveland City Council for possible approval and rollout this fall.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.