Cullowhee Valley School’s mascot is the Rebels, personified by the image of the colonel. The Rebel mascot was first used at Cullowhee High in 1958, four years after Brown v. The Board of Education ruled segregation in schools to be illegal. It wasn’t until 1965 that the “Colored Consolidated” school in Jackson County closed to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the K-8 Camp Lab school closed and Cullowhee Valley School opened in 1994, there was some discussion of changing the mascot but, ultimately, CVS remained the Rebels.
When speaking to the school board, Annie McCord Wilson highlighted the divisiveness of the mascot as the primary problem it poses.
“There is much that could be said, but I wish to keep it simple. The Rebel mascot divides. An inclusive environment requires a non-controversial mascot that all CVS students can cheer for,” Annie McCord Wilson said to the school board.
Wilson is part of a group of Cullowhee Valley School alumni, parents, students, educators and community members whose goal is to retire the Rebel mascot at Cullowhee Valley School. They want the school to be able to choose a mascot that the entire CVS community can unite behind.
This isn’t the first time Wilson has addressed the issue of the Rebel mascot. As an eighth-grader at CVS, she wrote a letter to The Sylva Herald insisting that if the image was offensive to some, it shouldn’t be a school mascot that represents the entire student body. At the time, there was some discussion on the issue, with other community members writing letters of support and opposition to the newspaper. Ultimately though, Wilson dropped the responsibility of leading the charge after someone called her house and told her they had a shotgun and knew where she lived.
Back when Wilson wrote her letter to the editor, the image of the colonel was prominent in the school. Painted on the walls in the gym, lunchroom and hallways. Now, Wilson has a child of her own at Cullowhee Valley and said the image is “toned down.”
“They are the Rebels. That’s the mascot, even though the depiction of the colonel, isn’t plastered all over the school like it was when I was there, it’s still the mascot,” said Wilson. “I think that the kids don’t really understand that. I’ve had lots of conversations with my daughter, a seventh-grader, and she’s a Rebel and she didn’t really understand what that meant. So, I think that the students don’t understand, because they are not really allowed to have pride in their mascot.”
Wilson’s husband also grew up in Jackson County, though he attended Fairview Elementary where the mascot is the Golden Eagle.
“He likes to say an Eagle never loses its wings,” Wilson said. “Really to this day, him and many of his friends who attended Fairview, are Eagles until the day they die. And I want that for Cullowhee Valley and the kids there — to have a mascot that they can be proud of.”
Despite the Rebel image being toned down over the years, the mascot has been divisive for generations. So, why tackle the issue now?
Even though schools are already dealing with the stresses of the Coronavirus Pandemic, the group realized the importance of addressing the Rebel mascot as movements for racial justice erupted again this summer following the murder of George Floyd.
“I think that the cultural and political climate recently, gave us a good platform to encourage us to help the community make this change. There has been lots of awareness recently about racial injustice. People are confronting those parts of ourselves that we don’t really like to confront, and people are educating themselves about implicit bias and ways that, even without thinking, we could be acting in a way that’s discriminatory or making other people feel uncomfortable,” Wilson said.
Emily Virtue, a parent at Cullowhee Valley and a professor of education leadership, spoke directly to the issue of race at the school board meeting.
“It is not an image of pride, it is an image of power and divisiveness. It reminds us that at one time, white power over Black people was valued and keeping this mascot we continue to send that same message, at least implicitly, that we value the concept of power over Black people, more than we value Black people themselves,” Virtue said.
The group started a petition to field support for the retirement of the Rebel mascot, which now has over 500 signatures from community members and alumni.
There are broad implications of retiring a school mascot. It would mean not only creating a process to choose a new mascot, but also funding that change. New sports uniforms, school T-shirts and bags; hallway, gym, classroom and lunchroom art.
For this reason, Wilson said, the group has already started fundraising, and is committed to continued financial support for the mascot change.
If the school board comes to a decision, the group wants to empower the student body and the whole CVS community to select a new mascot that is welcoming, affirming and representative of all.
“Retiring the Rebel should be a learning experience, not just a decision that is made,” Virtue said at the school board meeting.
According to David Proffitt, chief communications officer for Jackson County Schools, the school board has taken the information presented by Wilson and Virtue under advisement and has not taken any action at this time.
To find out more about the petition to retire the rebel mascot at Cullowhee Valley School, visit www.retiringtherebel.com.