As the nation continues to grieve the nine lives which were senselessly taken at a church in South Carolina, much of the focus has shifted to the imagery of the Confederacy which still hangs over state capitals and monuments of honor throughout the South, predominantly the traditional “stars and bars” confederate flag. Yet other prominent forms of confederate imagery are prominent in high schools across the nation, many of which are now struggling with that legacy.
The two most notable cases of Rebels inspired soul searching have come in Arkansas and Alabama. In Arkansas, the school board in Fort Smith has voted to phase out the Rebels mascot from Southside High School. The decision has been met with both plaudits and considerable criticism, but is heading forward nonetheless. The school will immediately cease using the Confederate war anthem “Dixie” as its fight song, and will no longer be known as the Rebels beginning in 2017, giving it enough time to phase out the longtime school namesake.
Considering the fact that Fort Smith’s school district is more than 50 percent non-white, it’s probably a reasonable and overdue decision to get rid of the Rebels mascot now, even if other schools in Arkansas are holding on to the traditional Southern school namesake (Highland High School in Jonesboro, most notably).
While Fort Smith reacted quickly to address what seems a clear social edict, another school district in another Southern state has stopped well short of confirming that it will phase out the Rebels mascot altogether, although it insists it will address the issue.
Vestavia Hills High School in Alabama has long employed a Rebels mascot that is nearly identical to the one popularized by Ole Miss, which is reminiscent of Confederate generals. Now Vestavia Hills Superintendent Sheila Philips is admitting that the schools use of a “traditional” Rebel mascot is controversial, though all she is willing to commit to is a deeper look at the issue in the months ahead.
“We recognize that our high school’s mascot is a point of contention for some members of our community,” reads a statement from Phillips issued to AL.com. “As with all items of concern, we are sensitive to those issues that are important to our community and stakeholders. We will be responsive to this significant issue and give it the attention it rightfully deserves. As we do so, we will strive to be respectful to and mindful of the best interests of all of our students, the proud history of Vestavia Hills High School, and the bright future of our school district.”
Meanwhile, a school in Sloan, near Sioux City, Iowa is trying to figure out what all the big fuss is about. As reported by the Sioux City Journal, Westwood High in Sioux City has used the Rebels mascot since 1962, when former high schools in Sloan, Salix, Hornick, Holly Springs and Smithland came together to form the new school in 1962. According to reporter Tim Gallagher, the school adopted the name Westwood because of the popularity of the UCLA Bruins at the time of the school’s founding (a somewhat believable if wildly atopical and ephemeral inspiration to name a school). That’s also why the school uses blue and gold as school colors, not red and navy as many “Rebel” schools do. Gallagher also reported that the school chose the Rebel mascot in honor of a dog which was owned by a popular student’s family. It’s possible, and we have no reason to doubt that origin.
Still, it’s what happened next that raises more questions. The school commissioned a mascot that looked like a Confederate soldier and named him “Willie the rebel.” Perhaps it’s time to tweak that visual identity? In recent years the school has moved to a pair of crossed swords in place of Willie the Rebel. Perhaps that’s enough to quell some anger and hurt over continued use of a mascot universally connected with the Confederacy.
If not, Westwood should go a step further and change the mascot of its own volition, as should Vestavia Hills. If it’s offensive to others, the schools don’t have a right to keep using it.