I grew up in a bucolic, classic New England, suburban town 13 miles outside of Boston. It was predominantly white and Catholic. Its claims to fame: a maximum-security prison that housed the Boston Strangler among others, its proximity to the home of the New England Patriots (aka Foxboro Stadium/Sullivan Stadium/Gillette Stadium), the place where numerous professional Boston athletes reside in their off-seasons, and powerhouse high school sports.
It’s the last claim to fame that I am going to focus on. Across the Bay State, Walpole High School has long been well known for its prowess on the athletic field or court. I am part of that legacy. I played four years on the multiple title-winning softball team, a year on the soccer team, and three years on the field hockey team—including winning a state championship my senior year. The football team has won 20 league titles, seven Eastern Massachusetts Super Bowl titles, and captured two Massachusetts State Championships. The field hockey team has won 10 state championships—the record for number of overall Championship titles for Massachusetts field hockey. The boys cross country team has won 12 titles dating as far back as 1932. And, the list of accomplishments goes on and on—each of the sports played by the high school has similar statistics.
Why am I talking about high school sports on a design blog? Because it’s the identity of the school’s sports teams that’s an issue. The school and all of the sports teams except the field hockey team (another story for another day) are known as the Walpole Rebels. For some, the name Rebels alone may not seem problematic. As defined by Merriam-Webster a rebel is one who rebels (to oppose or disobey one in authority or control) or participates in a rebellion (opposition to one in authority or dominance). Athletes band together and rise up to defeat their opponent! However, in Walpole’s case, Rebels carried a lot more meaning.
The school adopted the Rebels moniker—replacing its old mascot, the Hilltoppers—in the mid-1960s, at the centennial of the Civil War and amid the civil rights movement. At first, the nickname carried no connection to the Confederacy. But then, General Lee rode into town. He was responsible for turning Walpole’s football team into the legendary powerhouse it remains today. John Lee—a tall, commanding, bald man with a southern drawl—came to coach football in Walpole in 1968. He arrived from Overton High School, in Memphis, Tennessee—a racist/segregated high school whose mascot was “The Rebels.” The Rebels name and mascot have a direct link to the “Rebels” of 1861-1865, Confederates who rose up in armed rebellion against the US to create their own country that supported the institution of slavery.
When Lee took over as coach, the Rebels fandom took on a distinctly Old South tone in suburban, liberal Massachusetts. Newspapers called the team “General Lee’s Rebels.’’ From the 60s until the 90s, (Yes, the 1990s. I was there—I heard it, saw it, wore it.) Walpole embraced the “Rebel” identity by associating themselves with the Confederate States of America, and specifically the Confederate flag. For many years, the song “Dixie” was commonly sung at football games and even incorporated into the cheerleaders’ cheers. Rebel flags waved in the stands, were hung on the press box, and were printed on uniforms. The cover of the 1971 yearbook was a Confederate flag.
Finally, in 1988, when the high school was up for re-accreditation, someone took notice of the usage of the Confederate “brand.” The New England Association of Schools and Colleges was shocked at the public school’s endorsement of the Confederate flag. As a result, the School Committee decided to bar the use of Confederate flags on school uniforms and the playing of “Dixie.” The committee reaffirmed that position in 1993 and again in 2015 when it opted against dropping the Rebel name but agreed to try to rebrand it.
At the beginning of June this year, following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota which brought light to the national problem of racism and police brutality, Walpole residents and alumni started a petition to change the athletic team name due to its continued connection to the Southern Confederacy and racist roots (a counter-petition was also started to keep the name, justifying “Rebels” as a historic athletic family and the name has a good meaning to the town). The petition was presented to the town’s School Committee, and on June 16th, the committee held a virtual forum to hear from residents, current students and student-athletes, alumni, and graduates of color about the name change—pro and con.
During the virtual forum, an alum said, “Your town pride is not what I take issue with. I take issue with your inability to change one word to create a more inclusive and less anti-black culture in this town. I’m not the sensitive one here. I’m not the one throwing a fit because I’m scared to lose connection to my childhood with the changing of one word. Eliminating the Rebel name is an act of inclusion. In the light of the current political situation in the U.S., as we move forward into the dawning era of racial justice and a more egalitarian U.S., I encourage you as the school committee to align yourselves and Walpole at large with the right side of history, and signal to your students of color that you care about and for them. … I hope to see the members of this committee and this community make a choice to protect and love their students of color today and in the future. We need a cultural shift in Walpole and that lives hugely in our education system. So please, seek out voices of color and teach what anti-racism looks like.”
Many of those pushing the change this time around contended that the rebranding was not working.
“There is no way, not a single way, that we can rebrand the name. You cannot rebrand racism, pain, disrespect, and isolation,” Rachel Bagley, co-lead of the most recent petition, said at Tuesday’s forum.
To the general public, the “Rebel” brand portrays the town as a community of bigots and their enablers. When you Google “Walpole Rebels,” the first image that appears is the lacrosse team on the field in front of a Confederate flag. What message does that send to prospective families, businesses, and teachers for the town? What message does that send to opposing teams’ players, parents, and fans?
As another alum put it, “What will the public think Walpole believes in? What does the high school stand for? I’d want it to be justice, equality, and peace. If that’s what the town wants, keeping the name Rebels sends the opposite message. Taking responsibility for past mistakes and making changes sends an entirely new signal. It’s time to snuff out the last embers of the Confederacy in Walpole. The name has to go.”
On June 18th, in a 7-0 vote, the committee at a special meeting sided with residents to eliminate the moniker and accompanying mascot because of its perceived racist connotation. Opponents of the change had argued that the name should be retained as a symbol of town pride and tradition.
“No matter what the intent, the Rebel name will forever be linked to the Confederacy and racism,” said School Superintendent Bridget A. Gough, who recommended dropping the name. “We must take into account the association that weighs down this word. No amount of rebranding will change that. The mascot is something that should bring a community together, not tear it apart.”
Lindsey Sullivan, 2018 alumna of the high school and co-lead of the most recent petition said, “This decision gives Walpole an opportunity to value inclusivity, understanding, and most importantly Black voices in our schools and in our community. It represents a commitment to a school environment where every student feels heard, valued, and empowered.”
Walpole, Massachusetts’ high school athletes are not lone ‘Rebels’ — more than 300 schools across the country use the name. And from New Jersey to Virginia and Texas, the same rebranding debate has broken out. Hopefully with similar outcomes to my hometown.
By Hannah F
Senior Art Director