BRATTLEBORO — What happens when a Vermont high school drops its longtime sports identity because of Confederate connotations, only to face a backlash from those who believe the move is too politically correct?
South Burlington, whose leaders recently voted to retire its "Rebel" nickname, doesn't have to wait until this fall's initiation to find out. The community needs only look to Brattleboro, where students, alumni and the public faced a similar debate a decade ago.
Brattleboro Union High School may boast graduates as progressive as Vermont's only Nobel Peace Prize winner, anti-landmine activist Jody Williams, but its mascot at the dawn of the millennium was a Colonel that spurred fans to wave Confederate flags.
The school's student council adopted the moniker in the late 1940s after learning its sports field was once a mustering grounds for Vermont soldiers getting ready to defend the North in the Civil War.
That didn't stop future classes from playing up the town's place in the state with the motto "Pride of the South." By the time St. Louis native Curtiss Reed Jr. became executive director of the Brattleboro-based Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in 2002, he couldn't believe the logo he saw on local uniforms: The white-goateed plantation owner was the same "Colonel Rebel" the University of Mississippi, facing protests, would go on to bench in 2003.
Soon after, Reed submitted a commentary to the Brattleboro Reformer.
"Colonels are vestiges of a time when blacks, the descendants of slaves, were openly and defiantly denied their civil rights by white Americans," he wrote. "In the absence of few, if any, black Americans in Brattleboro and none at the high school 60 years ago, adults compounded the ignorance of its student body with benign neglect. No one bothered to connect the dots between embracing racist imagery and symbolism and the effects such symbols have on the community."
For Reed, the argument wasn't simply academic. He knew a few Brattleboro students had gone so far as to burn a black doll at a homecoming bonfire.
"Do we want to develop future generations of local employees incapable of `sealing the deal' with ethnically, racially and linguistically diverse consumers and suppliers because of their `innocent displays' of hate-perpetuating symbols on their desks, in their cubicles or in their speech?" he wrote. "If the University of Mississippi can move into the 21st century, then why not Brattleboro Union High School?"
Reed's call spurred a torrent of letters to the editor.
"Racism is a problem that continually needs to be addressed at BUHS, but the Colonel is the wrong target," one student wrote. "Racism is something learned from early influences in life such as family, not from a mascot. To suggest that adopting another mascot would end racism at BUHS is nonsensical. The only way to improve the situation is to support a continued awareness as BUHS does, not to make a long list of icons which should be hidden from public view."
But others questioned if local students were worldly enough to know what's best.
"Members of a racial majority are often unaware of what words and symbols are offensive to members of racial minorities," a reader of Asian descent wrote. "One of my high school social studies teachers referred to the Japanese as `Japs' during her lectures on World War II. Until I confronted her, she had no idea that to Japanese-Americans `Japs' is an offensive and derogatory racial slur. It is my hope that the BUHS community will take this opportunity to fight racism by learning what its minority members think."
Of Brattleboro's nearly 800 ninth- through 12th-graders, 15 percent identify as something other than "white" — a figure close to South Burlington's 18 percent minority student population. Seeing that statistic, the Reformer endorsed Reed's efforts and dropped the Colonel symbol from its sports pages.
"Those in positions of power — the power of the press, the power of elected office, and yes, even the unwitting power of our own white skin — must step up to the plate," the newspaper said in an editorial titled "Gone with the wind." "The sentimental allegiance the Colonel inspires in some is a small price to pay for the creation of an open, welcoming environment for all."
Three month later at the start of 2004, the nine-member School Board retired the mascot — yet kept the Colonel moniker in deference to such historical figures as the town's 1700s namesake, Col. William Brattle.
Reed, noting "the name wasn't the issue, it was the imagery," was satisfied.
"The mascot is the springboard for a much broader discussion," Reed said at the time. "The issue has to do with insensitivity and how do you acknowledge the demographics of your school are changing. Our whole focus is how do we change school culture so it is representative of our diverse population and preparing our young people for a changing work force?"
A decade later, Reed says that question continues to top his agenda.
"I walk through Vermont schools all the time," he says, "and see very little imagery of ethnic and racial diversity or adults with disabilities."
Reed believes that hampers minority youth.
"There's a yearning for students to have some contact with adults who look and sound like them."
He's also seeking to help everyone else who lives in the nation's second whitest state.
"When I enter a building, all eyes are on me because I'm black. Our kids are not getting exposure to minorities. If we're going to build an inclusive Vermont, one of the best places to start is in our schools."
South Burlington may appear to be following in Brattleboro's footsteps, but in some ways it's a forerunner. The Chittenden County school once had a Captain Rebel mascot that drew whistles of "Dixie" before leaders dropped the Southern character two decades ago while retaining the nickname.
Brattleboro has heard calls to change its Colonel tag but hasn't — in part because it can't agree on an alternative. Take one past suggestion to become the "Kernels."
"It's a bit corny," one resident wrote in a letter to the editor, "but by choosing a plant, rather than person/ethnic group or even an animal, our high school could avoid political embarrassment while celebrating Vermont's agricultural traditions."
Brattleboro Principal Steven Perrin says that although older alumni occasionally request the return of the Southern talisman, his current charges had yet to enter kindergarten when the symbol retired.
A high school, Perrin knows firsthand, can survive — and even thrive — without a mascot.
"Today's students," he says, "don't know anything different."