Rebels: Confronting Racist Traditions in our Schools

By Matthew Gordon

When important changes take place in our local schools, I believe that putting those events in their historical context can give us a much greater appreciation for the forces at work and can guide us in how to proceed. The recent decision by the school board of South Burlington High School to abandon the name ‘Rebel’ has become the subject of significant debate in my home town and is much more than a modern bout over political correctness. It is the latest clash between traditionalism and inclusiveness in Vermont schools.

From the beginning, the school’s decision to name its sports teams after the Confederate army has, surprisingly, had a lot to do with the confederacy. Many have claimed that the name reflects the Green Mountain Boys, a locally-organized militia famous for seizing Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War. This explanation falls flat when you look at other imagery and traditions at the school, which were themed around the Confederacy, not our state’s history. Though there is no certainty in any explanation of the name’s original origin, it seems likely that the name reflects the word ‘south’ in the town’s name, and possibly how South Burlington split off from Burlington in 1865, only four years after the beginning of the civil war.

Though the name’s origin may be ambiguous, it is clear what the name meant in the following decades. Yearbook photos from the 60s and 70s show the Confederate battle flag hanging on school walls, and the banner was often flown at sporting events, accompanied by the song ‘Dixie.’ Today, the school doesn’t have a mascot due to the decision to retire “Captain Reb,” a caricatured confederate soldier, in the early 90s. These pieces of history have featured heavily in local debate over the name, seen by some as examples of the continued legacy of racism in the school and by others as an ancient past that has long been divorced from the Rebel name. This argument is strikingly similar to ones supporting the confederate flag, which many say is a symbol of southern pride and heritage rather than white supremacy. In reality, what we now think of as the flag of the Confederacy was only the battle flag. It never saw wide use as a symbol until the late 1950s, when it found new life as a sign of opposition to the growing civil rights movement in the south. The only pride and heritage it is old enough to represent is that of Jim Crow segregation and racist brutality.

The argument for the Rebel name is no different. Whether the origin has been tempered with a more general, uplifting message is irrelevant when black students and community members continue to see it as a symbol of oppression. Isaiah Hines, a student representative to the school board, was one of the leading students of color to push the school to drop this name, and the local NAACP was also involved in school board meetings, standing alongside Isaiah and other courageous students in pressuring the board.

The decision to change the school’s name reflects a move being made in schools both locally and nationally. Until 2005, sports teams at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg were known as the Crusaders, until their school board decided to rebrand its teams as the Redhawks. Rice, a private Catholic school also located in South Burlington, originally went by the blatantly racist moniker ‘Little Indians.’ While many schools around the country continue to hold on to names like “midgets”, “chinks”, and “coons”, others are making this same move to improve their educational environments. These names are not the largest source of racism in public education today, with biased textbooks, urban school privatization, and the school to prison pipeline all representing greater problems. That being said, we should not be blind to the benefits of these small victories in educating the public on the need for more extensive change.

Mascots and flags are not the only legacies of racism in local education, with the tradition of “Slave Day” being the most backward of the bunch. On slave day, younger students would be auctioned off to upper classmen to carry their books and perform other tasks as the older student saw fit. Archives of the Burlington Free Press show coverage of this trend in schools across the state beginning in 1961 and continuing sporadically until 1986. Many are quick to dismiss these practices as ancient history, but in my mind, thirty years hardly qualifies. The claim of ignorance as the source of these traditions is similarly inadequate. SBHS was built on the eve of the civil rights movements of the sixties. Saying that people didn’t know any better while the news was filled with coverage of civil rights protests is incredibly naïve. On the other hand, Vermont was not full to the brim with white supremacists. The truth behind the tradition lies somewhere in-between: people didn’t draw links between their traditions and more extreme examples of racism.

While having the name Rebels is certainly not as severe as, say, brutally attacking peaceful civil rights protestors with dogs and hoses, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a link. Flying a symbol of slavery contributes to an environment of hostility toward people of color. It divides our communities, replaces empathy with scapegoating, and distracts us from deeper issues in our society. The name Rebel may not teach students to openly hate black people, but by pretending darker parts of our history aren’t important, it teaches them to do the same. If we want our schools to produce students capable of improving our society, those students can’t be sheltered from the inconvenient truth.

The history of slave day provides us an example of what young adults can do when they stand up to bigotry. At the time, SBHS only had a few black students enrolled. Despite their small number, these students voiced their objection to the practice and won enough support to get slave day banned. Our schools best serve our community when all students, and particularly those of oppressed groups, use their voices to implement the changes they need and organize to improve their communities. These lessons are particularly important in times like these, when bigots and billionaires lay the law.

The bravery of the students who fought to have the Rebel name retired is even more remarkable considering the limited access to this history of student action in South Burlington. It is inspiring to see people fight for these changes without a tradition to build on, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can openly acknowledge that our schools have a racist past, and we need to keep the memory of student activism alive if there’s any chance of it continuing. I would hate to look back on these events and find that Isaiah Hines and others who fought for this victory have been forgotten. Pleasant or not, history serves as an example for us to guide our future decisions, and ignoring that history dooms the progress we’ve made. In this case, there’s a lot more than a name at stake.