As students entered Hurley High School in Hurley, Va., for the first day of classes this week, they passed through a set of bright red doors on which the Confederate battle flag is boldly painted.

Once inside, they encountered decorative battle flags throughout the building, from the walls of the school’s main office to the equipment in the weight room to center court in the school gym, according to USA Today.

If those students were members of the the Hurley Rebels football team, they wore helmets at practice featuring an image of the flag flying from a saber, the paper reported.

No matter where students travel in Hurley High School, the Confederate flag is an inescapable presence.

Around 200 schools across the nation use “Rebels” as a nickname, according to USA Today. Amid renewed scrutiny following a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C., that left nine parishioners dead in a historic African American church this summer, some schools have moved to review and eliminate names and imagery associated with the Confederate cause.

Hurley High School is not one of them.

Administrators argue that the controversial Southern symbol has always been a source of pride in their tiny coalmining community of 3,000 residents on the edge of Appalachia. Buchanan County, where Hurley is located, has a population of just over 24,000 people, about 97 percent of whom are white, according to the 2010 census.

Principal Pam Dotson, an ardent defender of the flag, said last month that she doubted a single person in town wants to strip the school of its Confederate symbols, referring to the imagery as “heritage, not hate.”

“I’ve had a lot of calls from students and parents wanting to know if we’re going to lose the right to display our Confederate flag,” Dotson told the Bristol Herald Courier last month.

“Our community is standing by it.”

Among the flag’s prominent supporters is the school’s lone black student. Chris Spencer, a senior running back on the football team, has a battle flag tattooed on his right forearm, according to USA Today.

“It doesn’t mean racism to me,” Spencer told the paper. “I just look at it as a flag. It’s our mascot. It just means our school.”

According to USA Today, Spencer is often cited by defenders of the flag as living, breathing justification for the flag’s continued use.

“We got one black kid, and look at his arm,” Steve Blankenship, whose grandson plays for the football team, told USA Today.

According to the results of a Pew Research Center poll released earlier this month, the Confederate flag continues to elicit sharply different reactions from people depending on their racial background and political persuasion:

Most Americans (57%) support the recent decision by South Carolina’s government to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds; 34% see this as the wrong decision. Though majorities of whites (56%), blacks (76%) and Hispanics (52%) say the flag’s removal was the right decision, there are more substantial partisan divides: Fully 74% of Democrats say this was the right decision, while Republicans are more divided (43% right decision, 49% wrong decision).

While a debate continues over the flag’s contemporary meaning, scholars say there is little debate about the banner’s original associations. States’ rights played a role in the southern states’ decision to leave the union, but the right that southern politicians were seeking to maintain was the institution of slavery.

James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, told The Washington Post’s Emma Brown last month that slavery’s fundamental role in fomenting the Civil War is “a matter of scholarly consensus.”

“The War happened only because of the determination of the leadership of eleven states to defend the right of their residents to own other human beings,” Grossman wrote in an e-mail. “The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.”

Hurley High’s Facebook page includes photos of football players running onto the field holding the Confederate flag and breaking through a homecoming banner featuring hand-drawn images of the flag. In photos from a homecoming parade, the flag adorns multiple vehicles, including fire trucks from a local volunteer department.

Messages left at the Buchanan County school superintendent’s office seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Dotson told the Herald Courier that the Confederate flag has been associated with the school since the school first started playing football in the 1950s.

The principal told the Huffington Post last month that the school’s mascot was not chosen maliciously or by people who were racist or “pro-slavery.” She said the flag was chosen to honor area soldiers who fought during the Civil War.

“They’re just good ol’ country folk here,” she told the Herald Courier. “They see it as like gun rights and driving pickup trucks and singing country music. There’s definitely no hate or racism associated with it here.”


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