Rebels no more? After 63 years, South High might be ready to drop its last remnant of Civil War iconography

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Perhaps not since the Civil Rights era of the mid-1960s have race relations been so much at the forefront of public discussion. And one of the outgrowths of this renewed attention has been the debate over school mascots — especially mascots that invoke Native American and Civil War imagery.

We’ve got one of those debates taking shape right here in Bakersfield, at South High School

In 1957, it must have seemed like a natural choice. A new high school in town, at the city’s south end. What to call them? Rebels, of course. Sixty-three years later, the name comes off the tongue much differently than it did during the Eisenhower administration. Maybe, some in the community say, it’s time for a change.

We’re talking about race and ethnicity in a whole new way these days. Americans of all colors are rethinking their assumptions and reconsidering some of the institutions behind those assumptions.

One is in the world of sports, where pro football’s Washington Redskins say they’re reviewing the team name that many find demeaning to Native Americans. Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians are said to be reevaluating as well.

And now, here in Bakersfield, the Kern High School District confirms that preliminary discussions are underway over the name of the South High School mascot, the Rebels.

The Columbia blue and gray Rebels are cheered on by the Rebelette color guard team and, for many years, by mascots known as Jody and Johnny Rebel. Until the late 60s, students waved the Confederate flag and played Dixie. Even some of the neighborhood street names are full of civil war imagery. There’s Sumter Drive, named for the Union fort whose shelling ignited the war. A few blocks east, at the end of the south end of the football field, there’s the corner of Monitor and Merrimac, clearly named for the two ironclad combatants in a famous Civil War navy battle.

South High shouldn’t turn its back on that kind of tradition, says Jim Reynolds, quarterback of the 1968 football team and student body vice president.

“At some point it’s got to stop,” said Reynolds, who lives in Grass Valley. “Besides, look at these other schools in Bakersfield. The West High Vikings. The Vikings were rapers and pillagers — really? What are they gonna do with that name? They gotta go. And we have a team called the Blades” at East High School?

Randy Ariey has taught at South High School for 20 years, and as accustomed to the name Rebels as he is, he thinks it’s time for a change — at the local school and elsewhere.

“I guess it was the George Floyd situation that kind of brought things to the forefront,” he said “But I definitely think it’s time that we do this. Some of these names are really insensitive.”

The Kern High School District says South High Principal Connie Grumling is in the very early stages of forming a committee to discuss a possible mascot name change — very early as in she decided to do it just this week.

This name-change committee could include alumni, students, and staff, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and preparation for the reopening of schools, a meeting date has not been set.

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