Tie a Yellow Ribbon

As I contemplate the potential for the New Year, I have a vision for my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, and it’s big. Since being designated the Bold New City of the South after consolidation in 1968, Jacksonville’s character has drastically shifted. The era of segregation is over. We now live in an evolving modern city poised to make its mark. It’s time for Jacksonville’s brand to truly reflect the people and potential within.

I see us becoming The City of Second Chances. I’ll explain. In October 1971, newspaper columnist Pete Hamill wrote “Going Home” for The New York Post. It’s a story about a man traveling south to Jacksonville on a Greyhound bus after leaving prison. Seeing anxiety in the man’s face, a fellow passenger inquires and learns that the man is unsure if he’ll be welcomed home by his wife. The man explains that, before being released, he wrote to her asking for a sign. If she wanted him to come home, she should tie a yellow handkerchief on the big oak tree in Brunswick, Georgia, the last sizable town before Jacksonville. He admitted he was worried what he’d find on that old tree, dreading that she wouldn’t want him back.

The man’s story quickly spread among the passengers and, as the bus approached Brunswick, they all crowded by the windows, eager with anticipation. What greeted them wasn’t a single yellow handkerchief, but hundreds of yellow ribbons tied to the tree “as a banner of welcome blowing and billowing in the wind.”

This story of hope and redemption was republished multiple times and later became a hit single, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” by Tony Orlando & Dawn.

The continued popularity of the narrative is understandable. Without even knowing the man’s past or reason for his incarceration, you find yourself rooting for him and his family. Like the bus passengers,  you find yourself cheer when you learn that so many  folks have welcomed  him home.

While the yellow ribbon was originally  used as a symbol to  welcome people returning from prison, it has since shifted to represent a welcome to soldiers returning from war. The sight of lots of yellow ribbons wrapped around tree trunks became a ‘thing’ during the Gulf War years, as many of our military heroes came home to Jacksonville, full of gratitude, greeted so warmly by so many.

However, I believe the story and origins of the imagery are still compelling and have the capacity to encompass everyone who returns home.

That brings me back to my vision for my hometown. I love that Jacksonville lives within our stories as a city with a heart big enough to believe in redemption. I know this to be true. For 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with men and women coming back here after being incarcerated.

At Operation New Hope, we work to build stronger communities by making opportunities to realize second chances, with employment partnerships and job training. Our Ready4Work program helps clients reunite with families, get jobs, become taxpayers, reducing recidivism by half. Join me in becoming The City of Second Chances.

Stand with us at Operation New Hope and tie a yellow ribbon to your trees, your business, your church, your school—pin one to your shirt. Show that you believe that Second Chances Matter. Welcome our neighbors home and be proud of living in The City of Second Chances.


Gay is CEO of Operation New Hope.