Each morning, the Stars and Stripes and the Arkansas flag are proudly raised as symbols of the land. The Arkansas flag, however, is the product of one determined and creative school teacher, Willie Hocker. Hocker’s story is one of how even ordinary people can have a powerful impact on history.
Willie Kavanugh Hocker was born in July 1862 in central Kentucky. She was the youngest of eight children. Her father, a farmer, spent her youngest years fighting for the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1870, around the time of the death of her only brother, the family left Kentucky to start a new life in Arkansas, settling in Jefferson County.
They eventually settled near the small farming community of Wabbaseka, just a few miles northeast of Pine Bluff. Hocker had attended school briefly in Kentucky and resumed her education once the family arrived in Arkansas. As a young woman, she briefly studied at the University of Virginia before enrolling at the University of Colorado.
She gained her teaching certificate after returning to the state in 1887. Hocker spent the next several years teaching at schools throughout Jefferson County. She was respected by colleagues and students alike and was known for emphasizing Arkansas History in her lessons. Hocker served as a principal at a primary school in Pine Bluff before taking a job as a teacher in Wabbaseka.
In 1912, the Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in Pine Bluff wanted to present a state flag for the newly commissioned USS Arkansas as a tribute to the new battleship and its crew. The DAR is a cultural and civic organization founded in 1890, all of whose members are descended from veterans of the Revolutionary War. The Pine Bluff chapter was quite active in many activities. The DAR’s interest in saluting the state’s namesake ship was only a natural extension of their civic interests. Hocker had already been a member of the DAR for a number of years by then.
But a problem emerged: Arkansas did not have a state flag even though it had been a part of the Union for more than 75 years by that point.
The DAR learned this from state Secretary of State Earle Hodges. At the turn of the century, many states still did not have their own flags. The DAR immediately saw an opportunity to promote civic pride and solve the problem at the same time and asked Hodges to sponsor a contest open to all state residents to design the official Arkansas state flag. Hodges, a newspaper writer and in his second term in the position, agreed, and announced the contest. A small committee would review the entries.
Hocker was known for her creative mind. She wrote several regionally-noted poems and short stories. Her design for the state flag was a white diamond surrounded by a blue border with twenty-five stars, representing the state’s position as the twenty-fifth state, on a red field. The diamond represented Arkansas’s status as the only diamond-mining state. A parallel line of three blue stars were placed in the middle of the diamond representing the three countries that historically controlled Arkansas: Spain, France, and the United States.
Dozens of potential designs were reviewed, but ultimately Hocker’s design won. Legislators were impressed but modified the design slightly, placing the word “Arkansas” in the middle of the diamond and placing one blue star above the name with the other two below. On February 26, 1913, legislators passed a resolution adopting the official state flag, which was signed by Gov. Joseph T. Robinson. In the process, Hocker became the only woman whose flag design was accepted as the official design for a state flag.
In 1923, legislators redesigned the flag, adding a fourth star in the diamond to represent the Confederacy during the Civil War with two stars above the “Arkansas” and two below. None of the stars in the white diamond represent the Native American nations that once populated Arkansas. The modern version, with one blue star above and three in a triangle design below, was adopted in 1924.
In the years after the flag’s adoption, Hocker was honored across the state as its own Betsy Ross figure. She continued to teach until she retired in 1921 and then traveled across the nation on various speaking tours. In 1938, the Wabbaseka school board named the district’s new high school after her. Hocker died quietly at her home in February 1944 at the age of 81.
Hocker High School closed by the late 1970s. However, community residents still honor her contribution to Arkansas History. In 2014, a memorial was dedicated in the town park, and Gov. Mike Beebe declared Wabbaseka to be the official hometown of the state flag. Each day as the state flag is raised at schools, businesses, and homes across Arkansas, state residents honor a unique representation of the state and the imagination of one Arkansan.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.