The Tennessee elementary school’s mascot is the Rebels — Confederate soldiers — and a mural painted in its gym depicted vanquished mascots from rival schools.
There is a tiger with its head in the ground; a bear with a log over its head; a coyote looking dazed and confused; a pioneer waving a white flag under a covered wagon.
And, then, located near the rebel, who is triumphantly holding a Confederate flag, is a boy in a blue outfit hanging from a tree.
The school, South Cumberland Elementary in Crossville, changed the mural last week after controversy over the images. Complaints had flooded in to the school saying that it looked like the student had been hanged from the tree — uncomfortable imagery compounded by the proximity to the Confederate flag.
Confederate states fought to uphold the system of slavery in the United States; lynchings are part of the painful legacy of racial terror inflicted on black residents of the South that continued well into the 21st century. East Tennessee residents were mostly pro-Union.
But Crossville, the town where the school is located, has some current connections to white supremacists. Stormfront, one of the largest white supremacist sites on the Internet, planned a conference there last fall.
The school’s mural was painted in 2003, but it had avoided widespread controversy until recently, Jane Franklin, an administrative assistant, said in a phone interview.
David Clark, a member of an anti-hate organization from another Tennessee town, Shelbyville, told NPR he felt prompted to do something after a friend sent him pictures of the mural. He reached out to the school board in December as well as the district’s superintendent, who told him that the mural would be altered in February, NPR reported.
“But February came and went,” Clark said.
So he took to Facebook. His post on March 2, about the mural and a Confederate flag painted on another wall, struck a nerve.
“These murals … are both in one public school elementary gym where all the children go to play every day,” Clark wrote. “Germany does not display Nazi symbols. This is not heritage, it is racism.”
Franklin disputed Clark’s assertion that no action had been taken then; she said the murals had been altered by the school early last week.
A local artist had originally created the mascot mural off a student’s design, the Crossville Chronicle reported.
The man in the blue on the tree represented the rival North Cumberland Elementary School Patriots. He was hanging from his basketball jersey, not a rope, Franklin pointed out.
The mural has since been repainted. The Confederate flag is now a red flag with the school’s initials. The blue guy is no longer hanging from the tree. He is suspended in midair beneath it, a gust of air under his feet.
The school also removed the large painting of a Confederate flag.
“When the school was named almost 40 years ago, you didn’t have this conversation about the Confederate flag,” Janet Graham, the director of schools, told the Crossville Chronicle. “We realize times have changed.”