Maryville Red Rebels: Petitions circulating to change, keep name

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The journalist has updated the story to reflect the graduate who received the tassel bearing a likeness of a soldier told WATE that the high school did not provide the tassel, nor did every student receive this tassel from Jostens, the company selling graduation attire.

MARYVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Two petitions circulated over the weekend in Maryville: One asked the community to sign if they want Maryville High’s nickname changed from the ‘Red Rebels’ and the other is to keep the name that has been around for the last 85 years.

The petition to rename the Red Rebels said that the group behind it believes the change is long overdue, and the name does not reflect the current goals of the school and its community.

“The Rebel mascot stems from a history of slavery and Civil War and does an injustice to the strong Union ties of Maryville, Tennessee. There can be no denying this connection with the Confederacy, as the Confederate flag makes frequent appearances at school events and not so long ago, a Confederate soldier was printed on official school uniforms, and so it must go,” the petition stated.

The petition to keep the name Red Rebels said there is no need for change because they’ve been the Red Rebels since the beginning.

“Everyone who has gone walked the halls of Maryville can tell you that they were proud to be a Maryville Rebel. Besides that, the cost of changing the schools mascot would be astronomical,” the petition stated.

According to Nick Black, chair of the Maryville City Schools board, the name Red Rebels is not a mascot, but just a nickname the school is known by.

He said the name came about in the 1930s, after a dispute between the school and the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA).

Nick Black acknowledged that at some point, the Confederacy was tied to the school and its name the Red Rebels.

“You went to football games and the Confederate flags were very prevalent. Even when I was a student here,” Nick Black said.

Nick Black graduated in 1999, and he said that since then, the school district has taken “remarkable action to eradicate that symbology.”

He said that in 1999, the school board made some sort of policy statement to distance itself from any Confederate ties.

However, several students who attended the school after 1999 said students continued to use the Confederate flag to symbolize their school spirit ahead of football games.

Students said it was called the “Rebel Run,” and had nothing to do with the 5k run that a local foundation hosts.

Photo taken by a former 2012 Maryville High graduate in 2011 at a ‘Rebel Run’ before the Alcoa-Maryville game. (Courtesy)

Nick Black said that the flag was eventually banned from the school, and more recent graduates said they never saw the flags at football games.

However, 2020 graduates said they continued to see Confederate connections up until graduation.

Madison Elam, a 2020 MHS grad, said that one of her friends found that out when they received their cap and gown.

“She was appalled when the tassel came in and it had a confederate soldier hanging from it. And that really just told us that we haven’t lost that racist past and we’re still connected to it,” Elam said.

Picture of a tassel received by a 2020 MHS graduate from Jostens.

The graduate who received the tassel told 6 On Your Side that the high school did not provide the tassel, nor did every student receive this tassel from Josten’s, the company selling graduation attire.

“Maryville High school did not provide these tassels to every senior. Jostens is the company that sells these tassels to seniors as well as provides our cap and gowns, class rings, and other school gear. The tassel of the confederate soldier is one that was sold by Jostens under the title “mascot tassel”. Jostens never provided an image of what the tassel looked like before I purchased it. I had never seen that image of the solider before and assumed the tassel would have the iconic Maryville “M” representing our mascot,” the graduate student said.

Nick Black said he didn’t know about the tassels, and said he would be shocked if it was a school-sanctioned item.

A Jostens representative said that the school designs and mascots are determined and used solely at the discretion of schools, however the company was made aware it was using the former mascot design for Maryville High for the mascot tassels and as an option for a side panel on class rings.

Within hours of receiving a request from the school, Jostens removed these design options from the school’s catalog.

According to Jostens records, only 20 of approximately 420 graduates purchased the outdated “mascot tassel” product.

Jeff Peterson, Vice President of Marketing for Jostens.

The representative said the mascot tassel was not the tassel used at graduation.

Although the district has removed most Confederate meaning to MHS, students believe the name ‘Red Rebels’ still has that connotation.

Sarah Abrams, a 2020 MHS graduate, said that as a Black student, she knew the school never had malicious intent with the “mascot,” but she never felt proud to be considered a “Rebel.”

She said although many of her fellow classmates say it’s heritage and history, to her, it’s still a symbol of hatred and oppression.

Abrams also said the meaning behind the Confederate ‘rebels’ is the opposite of what the school actually stands for.

“I know Maryville celebrates excellence, respect, and inclusiveness. We are a proud school that basks in the success each student works hard for. Ultimately, the Rebels lost the war. So why represent the losing team? Whenever I would cheer at games with friends, you would never hear me say ‘Go Rebels.’ Even when I would post pictures from games I would say ‘go rebs’ because I refuse to glorify people who wanted to see my people in fields or dead. This past May, I graduated from MHS as a Maryville Red Rebel. As far as I’m concerned, I am anything but,” Abrams said.

Nick Black said that the name change most likely wouldn’t be on the school board’s agenda within the next few weeks because the district is focusing on reopening the schools safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said though, that didn’t mean the board wasn’t currently talking about it, because he said they were.

Before any vote would happen on a name change, Nick Black said the board would want to talk with current students and staff about their views first.

“We want to have the dialogue that the board is having with this issue, the same kind of acceptance and dialogue and communication with our students, our staff and teachers and everybody else. Not just pay lip service to these conversations. Like, have genuine conversations, discuss genuine issues, and take action in the students’ best interest, because I mean, that’s all that matters,” Nick Black said.

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