June 4, 2010

Mass. school in center of flag controversy

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Nearly 150 years since the start of the Civil War, the Confederate flag is causing a controversy.

At a high school in Massachusetts, of all places.

Walpole (Mass.) High has used the Rebels nickname for nearly 50 years, but it ended all use and association with the Confederate flag in 1994. This school year, however, it popped up again after the flag was painted as a large sign on the edge of the property of an alum that borders the school's main athletic field.

Northern Rebels?
So why is Walpole (Mass.) High known as the Rebels? Here's the story, according to a story in the Boston Globe.

The school, originally known as the Hilltoppers, became the Rebels in the mid-1960s around the centennial of the start of the Civil War. The name, however, didn't take a Southern theme until a football coach named John Lee from Tennessee took over in 1968, turning the school into a football power.

The Globe reports the team was called "General Lee's Rebels" and Confederate flags became popular and used throughout the school. This went on for a generation, until the school distanced itself from the confederate flag in 1994. The nickname, however, remains.

School officials, who provided a press release but declined comment for this story, acknowledged in the release that there is nothing they can do since the flag is on private property. But they now make announcements prior to events distancing the school from the flag:

"The Walpole School Committee apologizes to anyone who may be offended by the private citizen who chooses to display a Confederate flag in close proximity to the Walpole High School field. It in no way reflects values that we support.''

Joe Finneran, class of 1969, offers no such apology.

"It's a whole lot of horse manure," he told WHDH-TV. "If it bothers some people, too bad."

Is it meant as symbol of hate? Finneran, who served in Vietnam, won't say either way.

"Only I and the Almighty know if there's an evil in my art," he told the station. "As long as I'm OK with him, let everybody else take a hike."

Area residents and students appear divided on the issue in a story that appeared in the Boston Globe.

"It's Rebel pride," student Will Krumpholz told the paper before adding that, "players like it more than their parents."

The generational divide was evident in a video produced by the school's newspaper, The Rebellion, as faculty spoke against the image but students weren't as consistent. Race was not necessarily a factor for students either.

While an African-American male student said he was offended, an African-American girl said she was not.

"I wouldn't say I'm offended by it because I know in the school people are not using the confederate flag against me," she said in the video.

Just what this flag symbolizes is still up for debate.

Brett Kelly, the curator of collections at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa., said this flag, also known as the Dixie Cross, was the confederate battle flag created for the battlefield. He said the cross was used to distinguish it from the U.S. flag used by the North.

To Kelly, the flag has nothing to do with the issues of the North and South but served to help troops identified their sides in what often was close-combat fighting.

"The guys in the army were not pro slavery or anti-slavery; they were just trying not to get shot," he said. "They were not fighting for slavery; they were fighting because the North had invaded their states.

"Once the war was over; the flag was done."

Kelly sees it as a historical flag - not a symbol of hatred or bigotry. And while he acknowledges that its use by white-supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan have changed its meaning, he wishes people could see past that.

"If people want to remember if for something that some low-life group in the 20th century adopted, then that's their own ignorance," he said. "That's like saying if the Klan adopts the moon as its symbol everyone should be offended by the moon."

That being said, he realizes it's a no-win situation for the school.

"There's no clear-cut answer," he said. "It's a touchy situation."

One that Kelly is stunned to hear is having impact in Walpole, Mass. - an area that has little Civil War history.

"Why are they flying a confederate flag in Massachusetts in the first place? I find it more of a head-scratcher than offensive."

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