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Group Pushes Southern Indiana School To Change Nickname With Confederate Ties

Schools in the Southwestern Jefferson County Consolidated School System use the Rebel as a mascot.
Schools in the Southwestern Jefferson County Consolidated School System use the Rebel as a mascot.

Nestled along the Ohio River around 45 miles northeast of Louisville is the small town of Hanover, Indiana. Despite the Hoosier state being a part of the Union during the Civil War — and where Abraham Lincoln spent his childhood — allusions to the Confederacy are still prevalent throughout the community.

One of the first businesses along Highway 62 while driving into the town of roughly 3,500 is a bar called Johnnie Reb’s — a reference to the Confederate army often used in American Southern culture. Last weekend, the bar’s digital sign advertised a Friday night show by a band called Southern Compromise, which refers to the political deal that set the stage for the Jim Crow era.

And the town’s school system, Southwestern Jefferson County Consolidated School Corporation, also uses "Rebel" as a nickname.

Just as the national spotlight has focused more intently on offensive team names and mascots in recent years, so too has a conversation started about Southwestern schools’ association with the Rebel. Community members are debating the topic on Facebook, with many in support of the team name.

But on the opposite side sits a group advocating for change — and here, like everywhere else, the discussion has ramped up over the past two months after the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in nearby Louisville.

James Dean Or Confederate Tribute?

Hanover-native Julie Patterson wrote a letter to the editor that was printed in the local newspaper that sparked more discussion of the matter.

Patterson acknowledged that school officials trace the nickname back to the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, which starred Indiana native James Dean. But almost immediately upon the school system’s inception in 1960, Confederate imagery was being used.

The high school’s 1963 yearbook featured a Confederate soldier on its cover, with more obvious references coming in the 1980s and 1990s, including several depictions of the Rebel flag.

“One compromise we had [suggested] was [to] change the colors to black and white and have your mascot be a greaser,” Patterson said. “Like a James Dean greaser.”

Southwestern superintendent Jeff Bates didn’t return multiple calls for comment for this story.

Physical representation of the mascot has changed over the years, Patterson said. A generic “Johnny Reb” character was used early in the schools’ history, with adoptions of other more famous characters like Ole Miss’ “Colonel Reb” and UNLV’s “Hey Reb” coming in later years. Ole Miss discontinued the usage of Colonel Reb in 2003, and UNLV officials removed a statue of Hey Reb from campus last month amid protests over the police killing of Floyd.

While defenders of the Rebel name have contended that Confederate imagery has not been used at the Hanover schools in recent years, 2019 Southwestern High School graduate Robert Stark says that’s not true. Starting with his junior year, Stark — who was a member of the pep band — said that Colonel Reb made a noticeable comeback on campus, with students waving flags depicting the character at sports games. He added that it wasn’t uncommon to see classmates donning apparel with Confederate imagery.

“I've never seen somebody dressed up like a ‘50s greaser at a basketball game,” Stark said. “Nobody in the student body. Nobody on the faculty. I've never seen that association used. If that was the association at some point, it's irrelevant now.”

‘Signaling efforts’

Jill Kelly Koren, a lifelong Jefferson County resident, said that current events make the conversation more important. Along with the police killings of Floyd and Taylor, Koren pointed to an incident at Lake Monroe — roughly 75 miles away — where a Black man alleges he was the victim of an attempted lynching over the Fourth of July weekend.

Even closer to Hanover is what the group sees as frequent Ku Klux Klan activity in Madison, which is the next city over in Jefferson County, Ind. In late 2019, the white supremacy group attempted to host a cookout at a park in the city. Protesters clashed with the KKK, leading to the latter’s departure.

“Even though we are in Indiana and we weren't a Confederate state, we are sort of a bastion of KKK activity,” Koren said. “We regularly get flyers in this town to join the KKK. So why are they thinking that they should come recruit here or exist here? Perhaps because of signaling effects that are intended or unintended. But they're there.”

One of the arguments of the group angling for a name change is that if a mascot needs a disclaimer in order to not be offensive, that it needs to be addressed by the community. Jane Inman Stormer, who has lived in Hanover for roughly 10 years, worries that any potential association with the Confederacy puts the town at a disadvantage.

Outsiders looking to relocate for a new job or to start a family may not take the time to understand local arguments in favor of the Rebel nickname, Stormer noted.

“I think that mascots and school nicknames are more important and weighty than people realize,” she said. “They are symbols of the community. They are the community's brand. And when you have the ‘capital-R’ Rebel attached to that brand, even if there are multiple, multiple meanings of that word, if just one of those meanings is tied to something like the Confederacy where people literally died to protect the right to own people, then I think that's very damaging to the town's brand.”

For his part, Southwestern High School graduate Robert Stark says it’s not his nor the group’s intention to “shame” the town for its use of the nickname. Instead, he sees the push as an effort to make the community he grew up in more inclusive, especially for the small minority population.

While the idea of changing the name has been met with plenty of criticism by fellow townsfolk, other teams across the country at the professional, college and high school levels have taken action recently. On Monday, the Washington NFL team announced that it will drop the Redskins nickname after pressure from the public and advertisers.

Other Indiana high schools have also moved away from similar names, including schools in Goshen and Fort Wayne that have dropped the Redskins moniker in the last decade. Across the Ohio River in Kentucky, a petition is circulating to change Boyle County’s Rebel mascot.

“I think it is very important that we get across that we would not be doing this if we did not care for and love this school,” Stark said. “It would be easy to characterize us as being ashamed or having some sort of distaste for this community, but I don't think anything could be further from the truth. We want it to be a better place. We want it to be more thoughtful and more sensitive and more caring to the voices of people from marginalized groups, and a more welcoming place.”

At least 40 Hoosier high schools have mascots associated with Native American imagery. Four other schools — Randolph Southern, South Central, South Newton and South Spencer — use the Rebel as a mascot.

In Hanover, the issue was brought up during the public comment period at a school board meeting Monday, and community member Julie Patterson said that opponents of a possible name change flew the Rebel flag in the parking lot following the discussion. Those in favor of changing the mascot are asking school officials to respond by the August 31 meeting.

John, News Editor for LPM, is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email John at jboyle@lpm.org.

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