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Persistence pays off in rebel mascot issue

When I read that Annie McCord-Wilson was among those leading the charge to have the rebel removed as the mascot of her daughter’s elementary school — Cullowhee Valley — I almost couldn’t believe it. 

In 2002 when The Smoky Mountain News was only three years old and trying to establish itself as an information source for the region, I read a fantastic letter to the editor in the Sylva Herald. It was written by then-eighth-grader Annie McCord, and I was astonished at her maturity. Here’s an excerpt from that letter discussing the use of the rebel as a mascot:

“People say it represents our heritage, and we should honor and respect it .... But there is much about our heritage I am not at all proud of. It is time to shed this unfortunate image of the past and to select a new mascot with positive imagery and associations.”

Back when I had few sources and was always hustling to find stories with some depth, I recognized this would get some traction if I could talk to Annie. I started asking around and got in touch with her father, who is a professor at Western Carolina University. He and his wife agreed to let me interview their daughter, and so we ran the story the next week. In it, the then-superintendent of Jackson County Schools had this to say: “While I am pleased at her intelligence to confront this issue, I don’t want to see adults hammering at her. I’m not sure that her and her parents are prepared for this.”

Well, it seems Annie and her parents were very prepared for this. Annie’s mom was a teacher at Cullowhee Valley back then — and still is — when her daughter took on the issue, so no doubt she probably heard from many people. Still, her parents encouraged their daughter to speak out, and both were present 19 years ago when I interviewed their daughter in the school cafeteria.

“If she can get people thinking more deeply about it, it can lead to change,” said David McCord, her father, in 2002. “Opening the doors to discussion is more effective than any kind of belligerent stance …. People who support the rebel aren’t racist. I don’t think they intend any offense to African-Americans. To me that is beside the point. Whatever the intent is, it is offensive to a lot of people.”

Besides the support and encouragement of her parents, there was another inspiration for the young Annie to take on this battle way back then. Universities, like Western Carolina, are supposed to be institutions of learning, enlightenment and growth — not just job training centers as some want them to become. Annie had visited WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center and seen an exhibit that examined the issue of Native American images as the names of sports teams. It inspired her to examine her own school’s mascot.

Back then — as now — Annie got a lot of pushback. Here’s an excerpt from the 2002 story from an adult who did not agree with removing the rebel: “I will not stand by and let a person trample on what I believe is right .... There has been a constant badgering of us Southerners, and I am sick of it.”

In fact, her mother, Melanie Smathers, told me this week that Annie and the family even got death threats back in 2002. That’s the main reason they gave up on their efforts, that it was not worth Annie getting hurt. Now, as then, she’s a proud mother.

“This is a great example of the kind of person Annie is,” said Smathers. “As an adult, with a daughter at CVS, she realized it was time to stand up for her values again. With grace and dignity, she started a campaign to replace the rebel with a mascot in which every student would feel comfortable.”

Indeed, Wilson and a dedicated group of supporters kept fighting. I asked Annie what she hoped — as a mother — this would mean for her daughter and other children attending Cullowhee Valley: “Firstly, I hope this shows students that it is important to consider perspectives other than their own and their family’s. Though many people do not see the problem with such a mascot, we must be thoughtful about the experiences of others and have empathy. Many students and families have been hurt by this symbol in the past, and the decision to retire the rebel will save future families from this particular pain.”

And so it will. After almost a year of letters and work by many alumna and community members, the Jackson County School Board voted unanimously decision to ditch the rebel and let the school choose a new one. Nineteen years after first raising the issue, Annie McCord-Wilson — and the whole community — will get to see their elementary school retire a controversial mascot. 

Editor’s Note: To contribute to the fundraising effort to cover costs associated with retiring the old mascot and coming up with a new one, please visit Retiring The Rebel’s Go Fund Me page:

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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