Five Iowa high schools with ‘Rebels’ mascot part of Confederate symbol debate

Gladbrook-Reinbeck High School's logo is the Rebel (Photo: Courtesy of Gladbook-Reinbeck)

Gladbrook-Reinbeck High School’s logo is the Rebel. (Photo: Courtesy of Gladbook-Reinbeck)

Gladbrook-Reinbeck’s Rebels will take the field at the state baseball tournament Friday.

Yet unlike past athletic highlights for the school, there’s a new focus on the front of the team’s jerseys.

The use of the nickname “Rebels,” a mascot used by five Iowa high schools, is gaining attention across the country because of its long-held connection to the Confederacy. However, Iowa’s schools dispute their use has any connections to the Civil War.

The dialogue about Confederate symbols spread after the June 17 shooting deaths of nine black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof, a white man accused in the killings who sits in a South Carolina jail, had posed for photographs with a Confederate flag, and the homicides are being investigated as a hate crime.

Nationwide debate

To sports fans, “Rebels” has been a team name for decades, in all parts of the country. But concerns about the nickname have been rekindled.

The school board at Vestavia Hills, Alabama, voted this month to retain its Rebel mascot but will distance the school from Confederate imagery after calls to change the name were raised in the community, according to

Byrnes High School in Duncan, South Carolina, is another Rebel team that is discussing its use of the nickname after a nearby chapter of the NAACP announced plans to survey the community’s feelings, according to the Greenville News.

The debate over usage of “Rebels” as a nickname also reached schools in Texas, Arkansas and Massachusetts. Last week, Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze was questioned if the nickname was appropriate at the SEC Media Days.

“We could get into the name of the Rebels and everything, and if that’s something that is troublesome to others, I’m sure that we would address that,” Freeze told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.

5 Iowa schools

Besides Gladbrook-Reinbeck, the other Iowa high school Rebels are Sioux Central of Sioux Rapids, South Page of College Springs, Northeast of Goose Lake and Westwood of Sloan.

Leaders at the schools say their nicknames are not related to the Civil War-era Rebels. The use of the nickname, though, remains touchy.

A columnist at the Sioux City Journal, Tim Gallagher, stirred discussion in the community when he wrote a column June 28. Gallagher pointed out that Westwood’s nickname originated in the early 1960s when a student suggested the teams be named after his dog, Rebel.

Westwood, which is located on a street called Rebel Way, has a school welcome mat featuring what Gallagher referred to as “a figure that looks strikingly similar to a member of the Confederate ‘Rebel’ Army of the Civil War.”

He asked school officials to get rid of the rug.

That piece by Gallagher, who could not be reached Wednesday for comment, roused plenty of debate on the Journal’s website.

His column drew 60 comments as of Wednesday. Some commenters called for his firing and accused him of creating trouble in the community while stating their abundant school pride.

“People can disagree with me on the issue of the welcome mat and its place in a public school building. They are well within their right to call me an idiot and ask that I be fired. I get it,” Gallagher wrote in a follow-up column on June 29.

“I won’t, however, concede that I’ve branded Westwood patrons as evil, or bigoted,” he added.

Images part of debate

The iconography of images — does a cap or uniform and a team name of “Rebels” automatically represent a Confederate soldier? — has become part of the dialogue.

Gladbrook-Reinbeck school district’s website uses a cartoon figure of a long-haired, bushy-mustached soldier in uniform. A sword dangles from his belt.

He’s dressed in blue, one of the school colors. At other times, he’s worn pink, green, orange and yellow.

“We call him ‘the Rebel guy,’ ” said John Olson, the school’s activity director and coach of the Rebels’ playoff-qualifying football team.

Concerns over the use of Confederate caricatures as mascots is not just a recent phenomenon. In 2003, Ole Miss removed Colonel Reb, which many said bore resemblance to a white plantation owner, as the school’s official mascot. The university has continued to distance itself from the Colonel Reb image in the years since.

But Olson said the mascot has no hidden meaning or connection to Confederate heritage.

“At no time would we ever want to talk about the Confederacy,” Olson said.

Sioux Central also has a uniformed cartoon mascot that appears on its website. This one is dressed in red.

Other rebels

Jim Cox, superintendent at Northeast, said he interprets Rebels as something that has nothing to do with the Confederacy.

To him, it’s more like a James Dean figure in the 1955 film, “Rebel Without a Cause.”

The word had a non-Confederate resurgence after World War II. Marlon Brando portrayed a motorcycle gang member in the 1953 film “The Wild One.” His character was asked, “what are you rebelling against?” His answer: “Whaddaya got?”

“The Rebel” was a TV series in the early 1960s — that storyline, though, featured a former Confederate soldier traveling through the American West.

Gladbrook-Reinbeck has had the Rebel nickname since 1988, after the Gladbrook Panthers and the Reinbeck Rams went to a reorganization.

Confederate flag

Northeast’s Cox said the issue of the school’s nickname hasn’t come up at school board or administrative meetings.

However, he’s aware of the debate about symbols and terms of the Confederacy. South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of its Statehouse this month. College leaders in Mississippi have called on state leaders there to change the state flag, which features Confederate imagery.

“Sometimes the American people have knee-jerk reactions,” Cox said. “I’m glad they took that flag down. But the flag didn’t kill those people.”

Des Moines North girls’ basketball coach Haywood Boston, a black man who attended high school in Plymouth, N.C., when the area was undergoing desegregation, has strong opinions about the flag.

For Iowa schools, though, he’s not adamant about changing Rebel nicknames.

“Should a high school get rid of it? I don’t know,” Boston said.

Boston said Confederate flags were a symbol of intimidation where he grew up.

“Deep in those wooded areas, they had those flags,” Boston said. “You just saw it and got out of the way.”

Changing landscape

Iowa’s high school nicknames have changed over time. Once-popular girls’ teams with the suffix “-ettes” used to dominate the sports landscape. Few remain.

Discussions about mascots related to American Indians have occasionally surfaced.

Bud Legg, the information director at the Iowa High School Athletic Association, helped compile a list of 1,100 schools, including many of their mascots.

Some insenstive names have come and gone. Iowa schools still use mascots modeled after American Indians: Warriors, Chiefs and Indians, for example.

He said team names have traditionally been determined by the schools; the state doesn’t get involved.

“Whatever the reason there was, it seemed to fit the culture of the community,” Legg said. “If there’s any change to be made, it has to be made at the local level.”

Gladbrook-Reinbeck’s Olson said communication can help make sure there’s understanding that his Rebels — the ones at the state baseball tournament Friday — are not representing Confederate symbols.

“It’s important for people to understand what’s going on,” Olson said.

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