The executive board of the West Spartanburg Branch of the NAACP voted Monday evening to form a committee to explore the possibility of urging Spartanburg District Five Schools to change Byrnes High School’s nickname of “Rebels.”
Passionate testimony for changing and keeping the name rang through St. John Baptist Church in Wellford as speakers took turns addressing a packed crowd in the small sanctuary.
Several hundred others, including Duncan Mayor Lisa Cooley Scott, turned out under a sweltering sun in front of the school in Duncan earlier to show support for keeping the name.
A parade of vehicles waving Confederate battle flags, a few of which were visible at the rally at Byrnes, circled St. John Baptist Church as the NAACP meeting adjourned.
Barbara Jones, the president of the West Spartanburg NAACP and a parent of Byrnes graduates, expects the committee to be formed by the organization’s next regular meeting Aug. 17, with seven to 12 members of the community including past and perhaps present students.
“We need clear-headed, calm input from the community,” Jones said. “Time will give us the opportunity to let the emotions kind of die down and logic take over. That’s why I see bringing in more people from the community.”
Terry Moore, a 1973 Byrnes graduate who lived through school integration, and Henri’ Thompson, a 1998 Byrnes graduate who served as student body president, are among people who’d like to see a change in the Rebels name. They say it’s a hurtful reminder of a racist history.
Others say it is a moniker that unites the Byrnes communities surrounding Duncan, Lyman and Wellford. They say it proudly identifies a spirit that’s established without regard to race or politics.
“It has nothing to do with Confederates,” said Ann Byrd, a Duncan resident, 1977 Byrnes graduate and parent of a Byrnes graduate, who was among a few African-Americans rallying in front of the school to encourage district officials to keep the name.
The school district is not considering a name change as it stands, but a recommendation from the NAACP’s committee could ultimately lead the issue to be placed on the school board’s agenda.
Leon Rector and Mark Cleveland were among speakers at the church Monday who encouraged local NAACP officials to stop worrying about the name and move on to other issues.
“Our District Five family is one family,” Duncan’s Pam Leslie, a parent of a Byrnes graduate and sophomore, said at the rally in front of the school. “We all love each other. There’s not a problem here, so there’s no sense in anybody making a problem where there’s not one.”
“They’re going to force people to take sides on something they don’t need to take sides on,” said Shannon Lancisi, a Reidville resident and parent of a freshman.
Moore said the issue should be discussed in light of the murder of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last month. Dylann Storm Roof, a white 21-year-old who appeared to use the Confederate flag to identify with racist ideals, has been charged in the rampage.
Symbols of the Confederacy have been removed and become targets for vandalism across the South since then.
South Carolina legislators removed the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds July 10.
Byrnes used to display a Confederate soldier as its mascot while students waved the Confederate flag and the band played “Dixie,” according to District Five Schools public relations director Melissa Robinette, but that was stopped in 1991 after the school had become the focus of national media attention.
Several students were suspended from school that year for wearing clothing featuring the Confederate flag, which is against district policy, and protests followed while a federal lawsuit was filed by some students’ parents. That lawsuit was dropped by the courts, and a racially diverse committee ultimately recommended the board remove the flag, song and mascot from sporting events, but the Rebels name remained.
“Not everyone is comfortable with that name,” Moore said. “It just brings up painful memories. With the recent deaths of those nine innocent people in Charleston and everything that’s happened, maybe this is time for the discussion.”
Thompson said the school’s namesake, former governor and U.S. congressman James F. Byrnes, supported racist policies, so he feels there should be no mistake made in interpreting the meaning of Byrnes Rebels.
“James F. Byrnes was a true segregationist,” Thompson said. “If we want to move forward together, the first step is for the Confederate Rebel name to go.”
State Sen. Lee Bright, who was among the few lawmakers who did not support bringing down the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds, was among attendees at the rally at Byrnes.
“Everybody at Byrnes has worked so hard to build up that name,” said Scott. “If you take it away, it’s like you’re just kicking their legs out from under them. We have so much to be proud of in our state with the way that races get along. That was demonstrated in Charleston. It’s almost now like we’re going down a slippery slope and everything is being looked at. History is history, and we can learn from history.
“It’s a shame that the adults have gotten in the middle of something that was very good.”
– Follow Michael Burns on Twitter @MikeNearGreer