Students and alumni from a Richmond-area high school are seeking to revive the school’s historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the “Rebel Man,” spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.
More than 1,200 students, alumni and parents with connections to Henrico County’s Douglas S. Freeman High School have signed a petition calling on the administration to use its Rebel mascot — which dates to the 1950s — for the school’s athletic events.
“I think he really represents us as the Southern school that we are,” said Alecsys Brown, 16, a rising senior at Freeman who helped start the petition. “Since Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, a Southern soldier really represents us as a school.”
Schools across the country have long adopted mascots to represent athletic prowess and community pride, but often the symbolic figures have led to controversy on the gridiron — and off. In 2010, the University of Mississippi retired its Colonel Reb mascot as a vestige of darker periods in U.S. history. Other high schools in the South have faced pressure to drop the “Rebel” moniker because of its connection to the Confederacy and slavery, including Monroe High School outside Charlotte, which changed its mascot’s name to the Redhawks.
Just this month, after a group of minority students protested the use of Confederate battle flags in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s historic chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., school officials moved the flags to a museum in an effort to be more welcoming to a broader array of students.
In the Richmond area — where roots to the Civil War run deep, with the White House of the Confederacy located next to the Museum of the Confederacy in the city — recent efforts to force the Rebel mascot into extinction have stoked passions among the Freeman community.
Charlie Bonner, who graduated from Freeman in June, said he was part of an effort seeking a new mascot because, while he is proud of the idea of being a “rebel” — like a maverick or a revolutionary — the old Rebel mascot made him cringe.
“For many current Freeman students and teachers, seeing a Confederate soldier brings up images of violent inequality and their struggle to rebuild a decimated culture,” Bonner said. “We cannot lose sight of the real issue at hand: creating a school environment that is inclusive of all the students that walk its halls.”
School administrators considered dressing a new mascot for games, with some students indicating on surveys their preference for a lion. Bonner said he was ridiculed for even suggesting such a change.
Some students say the new mascot would seem nonsensical for a school named after Douglas Southall Freeman — a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of both Lee and George Washington, the latter a rebel in his own right as the commander of American Revolutionary forces and the first president of the breakaway United States of America.
Freeman opened in 1954 — months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision integrated schools — as an effectively all-white school, said former principal Edward H. Pruden. In the early days, students sang “Dixie” at football games and waved “Confederate flags all over the place,” Pruden said. Today, Freeman’s enrollment tops 1,600; black students now make up 36 percent of the total Henrico County schools population.
Although the school’s costumed mascot, clad in gray, was discontinued at football games years ago, the athletic teams remain known as the Rebels.
Amanda VanInwegen, a 2012 Freeman graduate, made a documentary for class about the school’s mascot and found little resistance to the use of a Confederate symbol.
“While we were doing it, I almost wanted to stop because we didn’t find anything — everybody said this wasn’t an issue,” said VanInwegen, 20, now a chemistry major at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. “Now it’s kind of ridiculous to go from a Rebel with historical significance to a lion, which doesn’t make sense.”
The 13-minute film opens with Freeman’s current principal, Anne L. Poates, acknowledging that the school’s old mascot, which once carried a Confederate battle flag and a rifle, was inappropriate.
“The picture of the old Rebel mascot I think people do find offensive, yes,” Poates said in 2011. Poates did not respond to requests for comment last week.
“Last school year, some of the student body expressed interest in creating a new representation of what personifies a Freeman Rebel,” Al Ciarochi, assistant superintendent for operations in the Henrico County school system, said in a statement. “No decisions have been made in this regard, nor are there plans to reinstate the original mascot.”
Lamont Bagby, who is the only black member of the Henrico County School Board, said he would support a broader discussion on school mascots to include the Freeman Rebels. Bagby noted that in nearby Hanover County, teams at Lee-Davis High School, named for Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, are known as the Confederates.
Brown, the Freeman student, said she started the petition to show that many of her classmates want to reinstate the school’s original mascot as a point of pride.
“They are really upset because the Rebel Man is not offensive in any way,” Brown said. “This Rebel Man does not represent racism or slavery.”
Brown and a friend took their petition to a local 7-Eleven parking lot and recruited people on social media to sign it. In a three-hour span, they gathered 279 signatures. An accompanying online petition has received more than 1,000 signatures.
“Instead of rejecting tradition, we need to embrace it,” the petition reads.
Pruden said he refrained from using the school’s moniker during his time as principal from 2000 to 2007.
“The word Rebel, I thought, was antiquated for the year 2000,” Pruden said. “I thought there would be a huge uproar if I led an effort to change it, so I thought it should be students who change it, and I knew it would happen one day.”
Pruden said he believed the school should align itself more closely with Revolutionary heroes such as Washington, “rebels in history who were on the right side of history, if you will.”
Many students and alumni are seeking to keep the mascot “to cling to their heritage for sentimental reasons,” Pruden said. “But what they may not fully appreciate is what those images mean to African Americans and others who comprehend what an ugly period of time in our history slavery was.”