week of  date  2/20/02
Smoky Mountain News (Waynesville, NC) Feb. 20, 2002

Taking on tradition
Cullowhee Valley eighth-grader wants to do away with the school’s long-time Rebel mascot
By Scott McLeod

Eighth-grader Annie McCord has a problem with her school’s Rebel mascot, and she has begun working within the system to have it removed.

“I don’t like prejudice of any sort. If it can be interpreted that way, it should not be flaunted as the school mascot,” the cheerleader and student council president said from the cafeteria of Cullowhee Valley School, a K-8 public school in Jackson County.

The mascot depicts a frowning Confederate-era gentleman standing with his legs crossed and leaning on a cane. The image is spread throughout the school, often accompanied with the words “Home of the Rebels.”

“In our society today, it is just not acceptable,” McCord said, her parents flanking her and nodding in support.

Her parents, Dave and Melanie, say they are proud of the position their daughter has taken, but they’ve also warned her she may be in for a heated battle. Her mother teachers at Cullowhee Valley.

Jackson County Schools Superinten-dent Mack McCary also fears that McCord might be stepping into an “adult issue” that could lead to unforeseen problems.

“While I am pleased at her intelligence to confront this issue, I don’t want to see adults hammering at her,” said McCary. “I’m not sure that her and her parents are prepared for this.”

Inspiring exhibit
McCord’s decision to take a stand against the Rebel mascot was inspired by a visit to Hunter Library on the campus of Western Carolina University where an exhibit about the use of Native American symbols, names and images as sports mascots is currently on display. She left that exhibit contemplating her own school’s mascot.

So she began discussing it with parents, other adults, students, and teachers at Cullowhee Valley School. She brought it up at a Student Council meeting, where she said most students did not feel that strongly about the issue. The majority, she said, did agree with her. She wrote a letter to the Sylva Herald where she discussed the issue and her feelings about it in depth.

“One of my teachers said some people had tried to get it changed when this school was opened seven years ago, when we moved from the old Camp Lab School on WCU’s campus,” McCord said.

Already, McCord said she has had disagreements with her “best friend” on the issue. Her friend’s mother attended the old Camp Lab and was “Miss Rebel,” and McCord was told that petitions have been started to “Save the Rebel.”

And while she and her friend disagree about the issue, McCord said they have remained as close as ever.

“It hasn’t gotten in the way of our friendship. She’s just like me — strong-willed. We both like to get our way.”

That kind of maturity was also evident in her letter to the Sylva Herald. In it, McCord discussed the issue of heritage, the most common argument among those who try to keep Confederate images like the flag from being taken out of public places.

“People say (the mascot) represents our heritage, and we should honor and respect it .... But there is much about our heritage I am not at all proud of,” the letter says, and then goes on to discuss slavery and segregation.

“It is time to shed this unfortunate image of the past and to select a new mascot with positive imagery and associations,” said McCord’s letter.

The larger issue
Principals at Cullowhee Valley would not discuss McCord’s complaints, but McCary said he has not heard one word first-hand about the mascot since he came to Jackson County just over a year ago.

“I haven’t heard any complaints from adults,” McCary said. “I heard indirectly that some African-Americans do share (McCord’s) perspective.”

McCary said that the Jackson County system is facing many important educational challenges, and that this issue was one that the community should deal with before it becomes a school system issue.

“Now that we have so much diversity, one of the difficult tasks is to learn how to build community instead of pitting one group against the other,” he said.

McCary did say, though, that the mascot was important to many associated with the old Camp Lab school.

“That is the only symbol left from the old Camp Lab,” McCary said.

Russell Moore lives in Cornelius, N.C., but was raised in Cullowhee. When he read McCord’s letter in the Sylva Herald, he responded with one of his own (Page 15). He said he resents the constant attacks on his heritage and wants the mascot to remain.

“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,” he wrote in the letter.

For some, though, the symbol is one that should go.

“In the public school system in particular, we should bend over backwards to make them as welcoming as possible for everyone — fellow students, for schools and students who may be visiting, and for when we visit other schools,” said Monroe Gilmour, a Buncombe County resident who heads a group called Western North Carolina Citizens Against Institutional Bigotry. “In that spirit, many schools have said good bye to rebels and rebel flags.”

Pat Merzlak lives in East Tennessee, but she was a mother of students at Erwin High School when she filed a federal complaint against that school’s Indian mascot and the use of the words “Warriors” and “Squaws” to describe the sports teams. She said that educators should be concerned about the messages they send.

“Everything in a school is part of the curriculum, and symbols like these send a message to children that it’s OK to keep things stirred up. It’s a stereotype, and stereotypes blur reality,” said Merzlak.

McCord pushes on
Annie is adamant about continuing her protest. She is a Southerner with two Southern parents, and she thinks the divisiveness of the symbol outweighs the arguments of those who say it is part of their heritage.

“I will fight as hard as I can until I get my way, or until someone comes right out and says it won’t be changed,” she said.

Dave McCord said the issues raised by his daughter are important.

“If she can get people thinking more deeply about it, it can lead to change. Opening the doors to discussion is more effective than any kind of belligerent stance,” he said.

“People who support the rebel aren’t racist. I don’t think they intend any offense to African-Americans,” he said. “To me that is beside the point. Whatever the intent is, it is offensive to a lot of people.”

And so Annie McCord is proceeding with her effort. She’ll try to get an official vote of the Student Council and then take the issue to the school improvement team. Then, perhaps, the mascot issue might go before the school board, which is the body that would have to vote to change the mascot. She promises to continue protesting the mascot after she moves up to Smoky Mountain High School, and she has a team assembled to carry on after her.

“I’ll do all I can this year, but I have two brothers — one in the sixth grade, one in the seventh. They will carry it on if needed,” she says.

See the Smoky Mountain News editorial on this issue


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