Douglas S. Freeman High School in Henrico County will no longer use the nickname “Rebels,” the county school system announced Thursday.
The decision is based on the recommendation of a community poll and a school committee created earlier this summer to study whether to continue using the Confederate-related name. Nearly two-thirds of the official poll’s 1,500 respondents supported the change.
In an email to the school community, Freeman Principal John Marshall said the Rebels name “is no longer capable” of unifying the community and reinforcing a positive culture for the entire student body.
“We want every member of our community to proudly cheer the name of our teams from the sidelines without wondering if they are hurting their classmates or betraying their identity,” Marshall said in the letter. “We want to communicate with everything we do, including our symbolism, that we are an inclusive, welcoming community and that the Freeman Family is for everyone.”
With the school preparing to retire the Rebels name and adopt a new mascot, the administration will hold a “spirit-wear swap” where students can trade in their old gear for items with whatever new name is chosen. The administration will also work with the Henrico Education Foundation to create the “Freeman Forward Fund,” which will support school efforts to “promote inclusivity and innovation.”
In the past, “Dixie” was sung at football games, and the mascot was a Confederate soldier. The school, which is on Three Chopt Road near Regency mall, stopped using the visual mascot in recent years and replaced it with an interlocking “DSF” logo.
School officials say the nickname and the old Confederate logo were likely inspired by the school’s namesake, Douglas Southall Freeman, a Richmond journalist and author who received a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Marshall said the school has tried to move away from obvious homages to the Confederacy, but acknowledged that some people continue to associate it with the Confederacy and racism in the 20th century, as the mascot was adopted when Freeman opened as a whites-only school in 1954.
Marshall said at least one item with the Rebels name, a T-shirt in the school’s band room, will remain as a reminder of the school’s history.
Nonetheless, he and others said continuing to use the name would be a disservice to students who feel it is is an affront to their racial or ethnic identity.
At the start of the last school year, about 62% of the school’s students were white, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Black and Latino students each made up about about 13% of the student body, while Asian students accounted for about 7%.
“I’m glad that the committee ultimately agreed with what students and staff have been saying for since the school’s founding: the Rebels mascot is a symbol of white supremacy and is indefensible in a place where young minds are shaped,” said Melissa McKenney, a local activist who in 2016 pushed for the renaming of Henrico’s Harry F. Byrd Middle School, now known as Quioccasin Middle School.
McKenney and other community members opposed the Byrd name because of the former Virginia governor and U.S. senator’s opposition to desegregation.
The school system’s announcement Thursday came just three weeks after the School Board in neighboring Hanover County voted to rename Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School, which had similar mascots.
Statues of Confederate leaders in Richmond have also come down this summer amid protests against racial injustice and police brutality around the country.
Another mascot change could be on the way in Henrico, as John Rolfe Middle School considers changing its mascot from “Indians.”