Lt. Col. Devereaux Dunlap Cannon Jr. has a hobby with a name almost as long as his own: vexillology—the study of flags.
Cannon’s interest in colorful emblems began at age 4, when he remembers being intrigued by pictures of flags in encyclopedias.
“I started making paper flags using crayons and notebook paper,” Cannon recalls. “I don’t know why I was attracted to them; just one of those genetic defects that afflicts some people.” He laughs, rifling through his current collection of the “real thing”—more than 200 flags from around the world.
They come from countries as remote as the Zulu Nation in Africa and Northern Cyprus. He acquired the latter from a collector in Italy, who accepted an old Croatian flag in exchange.
“Northern Cyprus has diplomatic relations only with Turkey, so that flag was easier to find in Italy than in Tennessee,” he explains. The prized banner features a moon, which made it a prime target for his 4-year-old daughter Kate, who favors flags with moons and stars. It’s now part of her small, but growing collection.
Each morning, father and daughter choose flags to hoist on their flagpoles in the front yard of their Portland, Tenn., home. Bonnie Blue, a Confederate flag with a white star on a blue background, was Kate’s choice on a cool March morning.
“She’s picked up on a lot of it,” Cannon says, speaking of his hobby. “She fusses when they show the wrong British flag (for the time period) on Pocahontas. She’s also pretty good at noticing when the Tennessee flag is upside-down.” (The Tennessee flag features three stars. When flown correctly, the flag shows two of the stars above the other one.)
Cannon—a lawyer and an officer in the Tennessee State Guard Reserves—admits those outside his family know him as the “flagman” as well. His office in downtown Nashville is decorated with samples from his collection, provoking questions from passers-by. He also gets several inquiries per day on the Internet.
And he’s always happy to share what he knows.
“For me, collecting flags is like collecting pieces of history,” he says. “If you have that interest in what’s happening to the flags, it gives you a star to hook onto to keep up with what’s going on in the rest of the world.”
For example, Cannon says, “Africa has a very confusing history when you’re studying it in school. But this is a kind of visual aid. Once you get a handle on this, it helps tie it all together.”
Last year, Cannon gave a presentation on African flags—a category he finds fascinating—at a local meeting of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, also attended by members of the NAACP.
Then he used his flags in a display for Black History Month in nearby Gallatin, and later loaned the bulk of his collection to a church that created an Olympics-themed display, in anticipation of the games.
“I do stuff like that all the time,” he says, smiling. “It’s a good tactile way to teach history.”
In addition to collecting flags, Cannon also writes about them. He’s published three books on the subject: The Flags of the Confederacy: An Illustrated History; Flags of Tennessee; and The Flags of the Union: An Illustrated History (all by Pelican Publishing Co.) The books are sold at national battleground sites across the country and in bookstores around the world. Cannon gets a thrill each time a friend returns from a foreign country and tells of seeing his book in a shop there.
His hobby came full circle in 1995 when Cannon’s design won a flag contest for Tennessee’s Cheatham County. After that design was adopted, officials of Sumner County—where he lives—asked Cannon to design their first flag. Both honors were dreams come true for a man who used to borrow his mother’s sewing machine to stitch together flags as a child. He kept a few special-order copies of his designs to add to his growing collection.
“I’m not a very good archivist,” he says, shaking his head at the disarray of flags around his home. “I keep trying to remember to enter them into the computer, but each time I get them out I start playing with them and somehow don’t get the job finished.”