Savanna High School in Anaheim will remain “Home of the Rebels,” but without tributes to the Confederacy. Trustees voted at a special Anaheim Union High School District board meeting held last night to move forward after a majority of students polled in favor of rebranding the Johnny Rebel mascot.
Dozens of students, alumni, and community members spoke out on the issue from the school auditorium. “Not once, did any of us look at Johnny Rebel as a racist symbol,” said Tommy Kearney, who graduated in 1987. He turned to the crowd and showed off his old Savanna shirt with the cartoonish mascot on it to add emphasis. “I do understand its history and I still believe we should keep it.”
Local pastor Dion Thomas asked people in the audience to stand up against the mascot during his comments. Most of the African-Americans in the audience did just that. “Johnny Rebel won’t go away unless we take it away,” Thomas said.
For decades, a statue of Johnny Rebel stood in the middle of my alma mater’s quad, Confederate flags waved during assemblies and the color guard marched to “Dixie.” It’s an embarrassing legacy left by former students who voted Savanna to be “Home of the Rebels,” after its founding in 1961, rather than being known as “the Surfers.” The cartoon character of the Confederate soldier became synonymous with the school and, in 2011, Savanna celebrated “50 years of Rebel Pride.” The displays angered African-American students and parents in the past. An article in the New York Times chronicled a fight to remove the flag in 1990, only to have students walk out in protest against it. They told the Orange County Register at the time that the Black Student Union “gripe[s] about little things.” But just nine years later, the flag slowly started to fade away while I played in the school’s basketball program. Before Savanna hosted Compton High School and its black students for a CIF basketball game, the two principals talked about the “Stars and Bars.” Cheerleaders painted school spirit signs on butcher paper that awkwardly covered up depictions of the flag in the gym.
Savanna began phasing out the Confederate flag after the game. The Johnny Rebel statue came tumbling down next in 2009 due to disrepair. An art teacher at the school started a petition to have Johnny Reb rise again only to have the board reject the $45,000 proposal. But with the school’s mascot still embodying the slavocracy soldier’s spirit and Dixie tributes falling in the South, black students spoke out at a board meeting last month. The district worked with Savanna staff to ensure a student-centered referendum on the mascot followed. A poll showed 56 percent favored rebranding Johnny Rebel with 26 percent wanting to keep him. Only 18 percent at the mostly Latino school preferred abolishing the mascot altogether.
The polling set the stage for last night’s special board meeting. Coincidentally, a white woman from Savanna’s first graduating class of 1963 spoke about the original vote to become the “Rebels” before a current black student opposed to the mascot followed. “When we voted, we never thought of it being racist or involving the Confederacy,” Glenda Flora said. “We were thinking that it’s the rebels, it was the 60’s that did fit in with us. We did not have the mascot. We didn’t have the Johnny Rebel statue. That all came later.” She favored keeping the “Rebels” name intact, lest a slippery slope of political correctness spread to the district’s other schools.
Matthew Thomas, a Black Student Union member, expressed why he spoke out against the mascot with other students last month. “This mascot is very disrespectful to me,” Thomas said. “Johnny Rebel is a symbol of the Confederacy which is pro-slavery and supports white supremacy. I do not want to cheer or represent a mascot or a name with that kind of meaning.”
The board would have taken swift action at the end of public comments if not for the lengthy, space-taking rant by Trustee Katherine Smith, who rambled on about anti-communism and her friendship with the late Eldridge Cleaver, the former Black Panther who became a GOP conservative. Smith raised the issue of money before abstaining from the vote. According to the district, replacing the mascot would cost $242,000 while the price of rebranding is just $51,000. Trustee Al Jabbar moved to have superintendent Michael Matsuda rebrand the school with the Rebel name, but without “any reference to Johnny the Rebel, or the Confederate flag, or anything to do with the Confederacy.”
Four board members voted in favor of the motion with Smith’s abstention. The historic moment came with little fanfare. Nobody in the audience applauded the decision.
“What they’re specifically looking at is painting out the inside and outside of the gym and a [Confederate flag] mural,” Matsuda told the Weekly of the cost analysis. But will the Rebels rebrand keep the campus-wide red and gray Confederate color scheme? “That could be a pretty steep bill for us that we don’t have the money for,” Matsuda said.
While board members hailed students for their exercise in democracy, it didn’t come without the racism plaguing the current political climate in the nation. Lay-onna Clark, an African-American junior at Savanna and vice president of the Black Student Union, faced harassment since first bringing the issue to the board last month alongside three other classmates. “I’ve been getting threats after school and people have been calling me ‘Nigger’ on social media,” she says. “Other schools have changed their mascots, so I thought it time for a change from 50 years of having Johnny Rebel.”
After the vote, Clark mulled over its meaning. “I would have been proud and pleased if they just removed the whole thing,” she adds. “It’s just like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.”