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‘Retire the Rebel’: Campaign seeks to remove Confederate-themed nickname from Indiana school

The nickname “Rebels” for the sports teams at Southwestern High School in Hanover, Indiana, has nothing to do with the Confederacy, school officials there have long claimed.

The school superintendent, in fact, says the name came from the iconic 1955 James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause.

But that makes little difference to Julie Patterson, an alumnus who started a campaign to “Retire the Rebel” after her comment about the nickname “blew up” a school alumni page on Facebook.

“If you’re a person of color, I would imagine that the Rebels would color your thinking about what kind of town you’re moving to,” Patterson told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s a signal. It talks about your community. Why wouldn’t you want to change it so that everyone feels welcome here? Why remain so stagnant?”

The fact is, regardless of the nickname’s origin, Confederate imagery was used in association with it almost immediately after the school opened in 1960 – in the midst of the civil rights movement – and continued to be used for many years, according to WFPL radio, an NPR affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky.

WFPL reported that the school’s 1963 yearbook featured a Confederate soldier on the cover and that there were “more obvious references coming in the 1980s and 1990s,” including several depictions of the Confederate battle flag. A Confederate soldier had also appeared on the 1962 yearbook cover, Patterson said.

A 2019 graduate who played in the pep band told WFPL that a “Colonel Reb” character was sometimes depicted on flags waved by students at sports events and that it wasn’t uncommon to see students wearing clothes with Confederate symbols. Nowhere to be seen was any kind of James Dean likeness.

Patterson’s campaign comes at a moment of national reckoning over race and the country’s history of white supremacy – and schools and sports teams across the country are grappling with issues involving their names and what they symbolize.

And though Hanover officials continue to resist, change is happening elsewhere – even in the city known as the “cradle of the Confederacy.” In Montgomery, Alabama, students and other advocates last year persuaded the school board to change the names of three high schools named for Confederate leaders and soldiers.

The changes are also happening at the college and professional levels. The University of Mississippi, known as “Ole Miss,” retired its longtime mascot, Colonel Reb, in 2003. And in the National Football League, the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins now calls itself the Washington Football Team, pending the selection of a new nickname that does not denigrate Indigenous people.

These changes are being driven by people like Patterson who refuse to accept the status quo, even when they risk significant backlash in their communities.

Reckoning with racist mascots

Patterson, 42, grew up in Hanover and has a long family history with Southwestern High. It’s where the former educator, her sister and her brother attended, where her nephew and niece attend, and where her father graduated in 1968 before becoming a teacher there.

In 2018, Patterson moved from New Orleans to Madison, Indiana, about five minutes away from Hanover. Two years later, in 2020, she had an exchange with a man on a Southwestern High School Facebook alumni page. The man, who was the page owner, had posted an image of Colonel Reb as the group’s profile picture and said he had been asked to change it. In his post, he wrote that the group wasn’t open to discussion about whether the image was acceptable or not. Patterson replied that it was “the epitome of white privilege to shut down a discussion like that.” She also suggested the school needed a new nickname.

It didn’t go over well.

“People were mad at me,” Patterson said. “I was blocked from the page and sent a message from the man saying he was going to sue me for libel.”

She followed up by advocating for a change in a letter to the editor in the Madison Courier. She imagined a fluffy mascot – one that would resonate with elementary and middle school students and that represented inclusivity, not racism. Soon she was flooded with emails from educators. Most of them were civil. Some were not, like the one asking her to “go back where she came from.”

She decided to launch a campaign – “Retire the Rebel” – and in July 2020 the group presented a petition to the school board asking for a name change and also that the school recruit teachers of color and from different areas. The petition has over 2,000 signatures, she said.

Soon, people in the Southern Indiana town began calling Patterson’s group Communist and Marxist, the same labels given to civil rights advocates in the 1950s and ‘60s. Undeterred, “Retire the Rebel” continued to email the school board once a month, suggesting different mascots.

“We tried to team up with anybody we could,” Patterson said. “Some people are staff members at Southwestern who are interested in the change. But people were retaliating. Some are literally afraid to speak about it.”

Despite the backlash, Patterson said she has made new friends from the project, too.

“I reconnected with people I knew from Southwestern and met new people who were in support,” she said. “My three closest friends are the people who spoke with me at the school board meeting.”

This past summer, the school board finally acknowledged that using Confederate imagery to represent the school was wrong and that people were agreeing with Patterson’s campaign. The school even painted over a mural depicting Confederate soldiers.

But the nickname remains, and the campaign to change it has come to a standstill.

Not just the South

In the South, many advocates of retaining Confederate iconography claim their defense of monuments, school names and other imagery is based on their “heritage.”

Indiana, of course, was not part of the Confederacy but was instead a strong supporter of the Union.

Despite this lack of ancestral ties to the Confederacy, three other schools in the state use the Rebel nickname: the South Newton Rebels, near Lafayette; the South Spencer Rebels, near Evansville; the Muncie South Rebels, in Muncie; and the South Randolph Rebels, near Richmond.

In fact, as of June 2018, 162 secondary schools across the country were still using the rebel mascot, wrote Patrick Smith in his dissertation for the University of Southern Mississippi titled “The Rebel Made Me Do It: Mascots, Race, and the Lost Cause.” As of October 2020, hundreds of schools were also still using team mascots based on Native American imagery.

And in its index of Confederate iconography displayed in public spaces across the country, the SPLC has identified 318 public schools named for Confederate leaders.

“The SPLC is inspired by groups like ‘Retire the Rebel’ that are working hard to remove symbols of hate from their communities, and we hope their story will serve as an inspiration to others,” said Kimberly Probolus, a history scholar and fellow for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “The specific context in which any memorial was dedicated – whether that’s a monument, mascot or school – can help communities evaluate whether those symbols reflect their contemporary values.”

Confederate symbols, for example, were displayed in communities across the South by the United Daughters of the Confederacy after Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era – particularly amid the civil rights movement – as part of an effort to glorify the “Lost Cause” and promote the white supremacy at its heart.

“We believe Confederate imagery should be removed from all public spaces,” Probolus said. “The principles in our community action guide are widely applicable, and we hope that this resource will help enable the creation of more equitable and just public spaces.”

Despite setbacks, Patterson and her group are committed to changing the nickname at Southwestern and have joined forces with MAARCH for Justice, a local anti-racist group, to advocate for change. “Retire the Rebel” also created billboards and signs to welcome everybody of every background to Hanover. And every Friday, the group stands on a street corner and asks cars to honk for justice.

“We’re still meeting every week with our anti-racism group, and we bring up the mascot change all the time,” Patterson said. “We’ll continue to move forward. We need to evolve and we need to change, and we can do it. If you’re a truly open and welcoming community, you’re going to want to show that in everything, whether it’s through school or street names. Let’s make it more welcoming. We hope we can make a change.”

Photo courtesy of Julie Patterson