- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

ALBANY, Ore. (AP) - They removed the Confederate battle flag from South Albany High School 20 years ago. A Confederate soldier does not dance during football games. This year, one of the school’s 10 black students led the cheers.

But every year, South Albany students and alumni ask themselves: Can we still call ourselves the Rebels?

The world has changed in the 40 years since the Linn County school broke away from Albany Union High. Earlier this month, South Carolina lawmakers even removed the Confederate battle flag from their state capitol grounds.

As South Albany has tried to craft a more generic Rebel, the community that surrounds it still fights to keep or give up the mascot. It’s a symbol of the underdog, blue-collar workers they are, some say. It’s offensive, others say, and has even scared off sports opponents from urban schools.

The perennial debate brings up questions of racism, school pride and the power of symbols. Can their mascot, symbolized by a Civil War-era soldier with a floppy mustache, ever signify something other than a uniformed defender of slavery?

This far from the South, does it matter?

South Albany didn’t become the Rebels until 1971, more than 100 years after the South lost the Civil War. Students and faculty chose the mascot as a cheeky joke. They were breaking off from Albany’s larger Union High School and thought it would be fun to play off the theme of secession.

Because Albany Union High School teams wore blue, just like Northern soldiers during the Civil War, South Albany adopted red and grey. The dance team became known as the Southern Belles. The sports teams and the marching band used a Confederate flag as a show of school pride.

“It certainly wasn’t a racist comment or point we were making,” said Diana Messer Nunn, a 1974 graduate. “We relished ourselves being new and different than the status quo of the old Albany Union.”

Because Albany was primarily a white town, students didn’t talk much about the Confederate battle flag’s connection to slavery and racism.

“I don’t think any of us really thought much about what it meant to other people,” said Sam Sachs, a 1996 South Albany graduate and now a member of the city of Portland’s Human Rights Commission. “We didn’t compete against a lot of athletes of color then.”

Sachs has spent the last decade fighting to eliminate tribal-themed mascots from Oregon schools. As a teenager, he sometimes wore a replica of a Confederate general’s hat. Once, after a football win over West Albany High, he wrapped himself in the Confederate flag and ran around the field in celebration.

But times changed. A handful of black students enrolled. Families began to question whether the larger Confederate flag in the gym was the best representation of South Albany.

In 1990, school officials removed that flag and told students to give up any school memorabilia depicting the flag. When school leaders announced they would take it down, the graduating class protested. Students asked administrators to cut up the flag and give a piece to each senior.

Twenty-five years later, alumni say some still wave replicas along Waverly Drive during football games. Their community is big on tradition; the town museum memorializes everything that ever happened there. Eleven of South Albany’s 60 teachers are alums themselves.

South Albany students and graduates still carry a chip on their shoulder when it comes to Albany Union, now known as West Albany High. West Albany ranks in the top 10 percent of Oregon high schools, while South Albany performs below average on state tests. Only about a quarter of West Albany students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, while more than half of South Albany students do.

“We pitch the rebels as always challenging, always improving,” said Anthony Ross, the student body president.

Ross’s father is black, he said, and grew up in Georgia. During the recent debate over South Carolina’s flag, father and son watched the news every night, hoping it would come down. But they’ve never thought South Albany should change its mascot.

“When I see ours, I don’t think Civil War,” Ross said. “When I see a Confederate battle flag, I do think Civil War. That doesn’t have a place on a state’s legislative grounds. I don’t think that culture of hate is perpetuated here.”

Still, a South Albany group on Facebook racks up hundreds of comments anytime someone mentions the flag. Some argue that Albany isn’t racist, that intent matters in judging symbols. Others point to an incident that happened three years ago as proof the mascot needs to change.

Before a scheduled visit by the Jefferson High School girls basketball team, students and supporters from the predominantly black Portland school wondered whether they should make the trip.

“They called and wanted to know if they would be safe,” said Brandon Johnson, a South Albany graduate turned history teacher.

Ultimately, only a few families came to cheer on the Democrats, and they huddled together in a gym that then still included a Confederate soldier icon.

Johnson said the community isn’t discriminatory, but “we also have to be mindful of how it represents us to the outside world.”

School leaders increasingly have tried to distance themselves from the soldier, too.

He’s still carved into a stone plaque outside the football field and in the center of a clock hanging outside the principal’s office. But no soldier mascot appears at games, and school t-shirts rarely include his image. Last year, crews repainted the gym walls, replacing the soldier with a modern but generic “SA” for South Albany.

The changes leave some South Albany supporters feeling a loss.

“West Albany can put their bulldog on anything,” Ross said. “It’s iconic. We’re always trying new things because we don’t have an image.”

Lately, talk around town has turned to what else a Rebel could be. Can the community maintain the mascot that binds them without offending anyone else? One graduate suggested sticking with a soldier - but replacing the Civil War-era mascot with a member of the Continental Army, George Washington’s troops that defeated the British during the Revolutionary War.

For now, an uncostumed “spirit officer” hypes crowds at pep rallies. J.J. Roper, one of only 360 black residents in all of Albany and one of only 10 at the school, filled the role this year.

Roper felt out of place when he moved to Albany from North Carolina, but he said he’s learned to feel at home here. He loves the school so much he hopes to return as a teacher one day.

___

Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com


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