Inspired by his grandfather, a VCU Engineering grad’s design nearly becomes the new Mississippi state flag

VCU ENGR alum Ryan Green on Zoom from MSU
Ryan Green, Ph.D. ('19), spoke with us by Zoom from his office at Mississippi State University, where he is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Several years ago, the same office belonged to Green's dissertation adviser Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., now professor and chair of VCU's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

When the Mississippi legislature decided to remove Confederate imagery from its state flag, a VCU Engineering graduate’s design for a new flag was one of five finalists selected from a pool of nearly 3,000 submissions. 

“I thought it was great that a student who graduated from VCU, an institution that takes pride in being inclusive and diverse, was one of the top contenders to change the Mississippi flag,” said Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., chair of VCU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

For Ryan Green, Ph.D. (’19), a multi-generation Mississipian who came to VCU to study with Topsakal and earn his doctorate in electrical engineering, the choice to enter the design competition was personal.

“The House and Senate voted to change the flag in a special session on a Sunday. The next day, I lost my grandfather, the man who taught me from a very young age how to love Mississippi,” Green said. 

Now an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, Green decided to channel his grief into a creative project that would honor his grandfather and celebrate what Green considers the real Mississippi. 

“The flag that flew since 1894 just no longer represented the state,” he said of the retired design. “In my design, what I was trying to get at instead were three themes: resiliency, hospitality and unity — all three of which, I think, Mississippi really embodies.” 

The design based on Green’s original submission depicts a ring of 21 stars — 20 for Mississippi being the twentieth state to enter the Union, plus one for the Native American nations that first lived there — and the words, “In God we trust.” To the left is the line of Mississippi’s western border. Featured prominently in the center is a magnolia blossom, the state flower and longtime symbol of hospitality. 

“When you think about it, hospitality also involves dignity and unity,” Green said. “That’s what I think Mississippi is about.” 

Green actually developed five designs for the competition. But it was the one with the river and magnolia, dubbed the “Magnolia River Flag,” that went the distance. His mother, a quilter, predicted it would be the favorite. “I'm taking this as a lesson that Mom is always right,” Green said with a laugh. (See a portfolio of Green's flag designs; the Magnolia River Flag is number five.)

One afternoon in late August, Green received a text from a friend saying the Mississippi flag commission was talking about his design in a Facebook Live event.

“I got on and, sure enough, the commission was talking about it and so were other people on social media,” Green said of the event, which revealed the top nine design finalists. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is great. Now I’m on Mississippi’s refrigerator!’” 

Citizens voted, sending Green’s design to the top five. The commission made its decision on Sept. 2, choosing a flag design featuring a magnolia blossom on a red and blue background. 

Green learned the commission eliminated his flag because the irregular line of the Mississippi River incorporated in the design would make it too difficult to manufacture. “And when you look at it from the backside, they said it looked like Alabama,” Green added.

Nevertheless, Green said he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The most meaningful moment, he said, was going with family members to the old state capitol in Jackson to see his flag flying along with the other four finalists. 

“My mother and grandmother very tearfully told me that my grandfather would have been so proud that I made it that far,” Green said. “And, you know, I just definitely felt his presence, and felt that he was beaming.”