A twenty-year effort to retire the Rebel mascot at Cullowhee Valley Elementary School ended successfully this week when the Jackson County Board of Education voted unanimously to retire the Rebel.
“I’m grateful for the board’s decision—it was the right call and one they weighed carefully and transparently,” said former CVS student Annie Wilson. “Anyone following this issue was aware when it would be discussed and had ample opportunity to offer their perspective. It’s also important to note that the board’s decision was unanimous. To me, this is a strong show of unity at a time when politics, local and otherwise, can tend to be fractured. The tenor of their decision indicates that retiring the Rebel aligns with the board’s and our school’s mission of education and inclusiveness.”
Leading the latest effort to “Retire the Rebel” was lead by Annie [McCord] Wilson. This isn’t the first time Wilson has asked district administration to consider changing the mascot. As an eighth-grader at Cullowhee Valley in 2002 Wison first petitioned for the change nearly 20 years ago. In 2002 when McCord [Wilson] first spoke out about the issue, the then Superintendent, Mack McCary dismissed the request and instead worried that she was causing problems.
As a parent herself now, Wilson wanted to continue working to have the controversial mascot changed.
“There are definitely a lot of feelings!,” Wilson said of the board’s vote. “I feel overjoyed and excited that our community has made this positive change. But, as an adult, I can see and understand that many in our community are grieving this loss, so this tempers my excitement for sure. I care very much for this community, it is clear that we all do.”
McCord said that while she started the effort to change retire the Rebel as an eighth grader, now as an adult, she understands the initial resistance and community connection.
“ As an adult, I can understand this, but I may not have as an eighth-grader! I was mostly dismissed by the leadership at the time, a little girl meddling where I did not belong,” said Wilson. “However, we’ve come to a place—with the passage of time and with more knowledge of the experiences and perspective of others—where such conversations, no matter their genesis, aren’t so readily dismissed. An acknowledgment of progress, yet with a ways to go—still, hope. Also, I’ve come to realize a community’s scope can extend beyond its physical bounds—so maybe there’s something to be said for that, how people from across the country still call this place home and still care. That’s a testament to how special and unique Cullowhee is, and how much we all loved our teachers and principals of yore. One huge difference from then to now is that I had an amazing team with me this time around with various impressive skills. This was a team effort and we made it happen together, all of us.”
The Rebel mascot was personified by an old, white, confederate general and has served as the mascot at CVS since 1958 — despite the school serving the community since the 1800s. It wasn’t until 1958, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and four years after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional, that Cullowhee High School adopted the Rebel mascot.
After two rounds of public comment in opposition to the mascot, and a petition with over 900 signatories, the Jackson County School board decided to not only retire the use of the controversial symbol but also the “rebel” name. The board’s decision has left it up to the school’s PTO as to what the next steps will be, which Wilson said is exciting for the students.
“This is for the students to decide,” Wilson said when asked what she would like to see happen next. “Though, I would like to see it reflect our sense of place. Some of the most compelling and enduring stories, whether they’re novels or films, or poems, have such a visceral, authentic sense of place. When I think of the new mascot, I think of the stories it will tell. The community is beginning to write that story now. We’ll record how it was born, how it was conceptualized, and what it is—which is, hopefully, something that genuinely represents, resonates with, and binds the community. But whatever it ends up being, I think it’s pretty cool that it was conceived with kindness, empathy, and resolve. It will certainly tell a story of perseverance, and hopefully one of redemption.”
Wilson, he is part of a large community group that have organized the effort to see the mascot retired, said that now that the board has approved the request, they want to help the school make the changes.
“Immediately following the decision, we reached out to the school to see how we can best help,” said Wilson. “We’ll continue to stay in touch with CVS administration, teachers and parents, and we’ll take our cues from school leadership. We also recognize that everyone will need a moment to adjust to this change, so we’re committed to having open dialogues and hearing our friends and neighbors who might want to talk. We are committed to respectfully retiring the rebel and preserving its past, which is important for students to see. We do not want to erase history, but rather frame the rebel in an historical context.”
Wilson and other members of the community have also ensured that the change will not be a financial burden on the school, committing to help with providing funds to change the mascot.
“ In terms of the new mascot, I’m happy to report that our group has already raised more than $1,000 to support CVS’s mascot changeover, and we’re excited to support the Cullowhee community—especially the CVS students who will help create the new mascot,” said Wilson. “What a powerful and fun learning opportunity for them—one rich with history, symbolism, and civic involvement.”
CVS is expected to unveil the new mascot for the 2021-2022 school year.