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Rebel mascot and flag do not belong in Walpole

March 25, 2009

This was edited on March 29, 2009.

In January, America inaugurated its first African American president.  For many people across America, the racial barriers had finally fallen, and the stains of the decades-long era when thousands of blacks were prevented from having basic rights had been erased.  From the time of the Civil War and lasting well into the 1960s, blacks in the South were intimidated and threatened, and under most circumstances the banner under which this practice occurred and was condoned was the Confederate/Rebel flag.  Walpole High School, has, for decades, used this same flag to represent its sports teams, namely its Superbowl-winning football program.  But with Barack Obama’s election to the presidency and Deval Patrick’s position as the only African American governor in Massachusetts history, it is clear that Walpole High must end its use of the Rebel flag as a symbol of its athletes.

In late 1993, a 1971 Walpole High School graduate named Mike Amaral re-opened the debate when he wrote a letter to The Walpole Times.  “The subject,” he wrote, “is the use of the Confederate flag as a standard to represent Walpole High School and its sports teams.  I guess what bothers me is that I still feel as I did 25 years ago […] the Confederate flag represents the symbol of a failed attempt to break with our Union as created by the fathers of this country, and also as the symbol of a state which did not recognize that all men are created equal.” Mr.  Amaral’s letter was one of the first ever to address the Rebel debate in the Times, and his efforts to stop Walpole from using the Rebel as a mascot continued into 2006 when he started a blog to discuss the controversy.  The responses from the community have been varied – while some agree with him, others either don’t care or disagree with his perspective.

Mr. Amaral’s argument in favor of ending Walpole’s use of the Rebel as a mascot is compelling. While every school certainly has freedom of speech and deserves the opportunity to not be judged by their mascot and associated symbols, using a mascot that is so widely regarded as hateful is not an acceptable school mascot in the twenty-first century.  Mr. Amaral feels that by using the Rebel as the name of the school’s mascot and using the Confederate flag to represent the school’s sports teams “mocks Confederate history and Walpole’s own contribution during the Civil War (over 100 soldiers), when squads of Walpole men helped in ‘…Maintaining the Union and Freeing an Oppressed Race…'”  Mr. Amaral’s belief is that waving Confederate flags at Walpole sporting events, like at the Division 2 Superbowl in December when Walpole trounced Mansfield, is “embarrassing.”  Indeed, a forum thread from 2006 to 2007 on the Boston.com High School Sports section seems to show that for the most part, the Rebel and its Confederate associations are not perceived as appropriate to people outside of Walpole.  “You sang Dixie on the field. that is so racist, disrespectful, the north WON by the way, and that is reason enough,” a user with the name “ZeRoJRG” wrote, referring to Walpole’s old custom of playing Dixie, a somewhat offensive song in and of itself, at football games.  Another user, named “devannd” wrote “the Rebel flag is a detested and revolting reminder of the ugliness that plagues this country to this day.. Please have more respect for your forefathers and recognize it for what it is.. Racism…sad but true.. you can look it up if you ever have the time…”

Walpole’s sports teams used to be named the Hilltoppers, until 1965, when a contest was held for a new name.  The name “Rebels” was chosen, but at first it was not intended to be associated with the Confederacy.  In 1968, the Walpole football program had a new coach, John Lee, and the newspapers began referring to the team as “General Lee’s Rebels”, a reference to Robert E. Lee’s leadership of Southern forces during the Civil War.  It wasn’t long after that when Walpole students began displaying Confederate flags. In October 1988, a committee from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges visited Walpole High School and observed school operations for the NEASC accreditation process.  A few months later, they issued their report and briefly mentioned the confederate flag issue.  “Although the football team’s use of the symbol of the confederate flag may not be in the visiting committee’s jurisdiction for evaluation, the committee felt that it should comment.  Regardless of how innocently the symbol evolved, or even if the community of Walpole looks upon it as a symbol of pride, spirit, and unity, the use of the confederate flag may be inappropriate due to its historical ramifications,” the report reads.  It was soon after this report was published that the Walpole School Committee moved to remove the Confederate flag from athletic uniforms, and ban the use of the flag at sports games.  In recent years, however, the ban has not been enforced.

A school mascot is meant to unify not divide.  While there are some who may argue that the mascot and its associated flag are only offensive to those who interpret it that way, the fact is that the Rebel flag and its historical use as a hate symbol very simply contrasts the pledge to diversity that Walpole High School seeks to uphold.  Even if the members of the football team, many of them black, do not see the flag as personally offensive, there are many in Walpole and in the communities the Rebels play against in sports games that see the flag negatively.  Just take it from one former Walpole resident named Edward M. Greene, Jr., who in 1994, wrote his own opinion of the Rebel issue in the Walpole Times.  He wrote of his experiences moving into Walpole and seeing the Confederate flags on car license plates.  “The Rebel flag has been a symbol of so many other things.  For many years, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan have hidden behind the Rebel flag to terrorize men, women, and children, who were of different races, creeds, and colors.  They wore the Rebel flag as their badge of hate and violence.”  Greene also compared an African American attending Walpole High to a Jewish person attending a school with a swastika as a symbol.  “Going to a game where there are many Rebel flags being waved is like walking back into a very unpleasant time in history,” he continued.

It would be best for Walpole, and for the community as a whole, if Walpole did not risk having outside residents see Walpole as hateful, and Mr. Amaral’s argument deserves some attention.  And, if nothing else, in the words of Mike Amaral, “Let’s honor our own local Civil War heroes and their history and not use symbols which represented their foe and their attempt to form a state whose philosophy included the breakup of our union and inequality among men.”

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