More than 150 people gathered in downtown Walpole on Saturday afternoon, ramping up longstanding efforts to drop the “Rebels” moniker from Walpole’s sports teams because of its association with the Confederacy.
The hour-long rally, which comes amid worldwide protests against racism, featured speeches by two members of Walpole High School’s 2008 state championship-winning football team who called on school officials to drop the nickname.
“We are at a historic time when we are making positive change,” Darley Desamot, the event’s keynote speaker, said.
The renewed debate comes five years after the School Committee voted to rebrand the Rebels name rather than abandon it. The committee plans to hold a virtual forum Tuesday on the issue of changing the nickname.
A group of Walpole students, graduates, parents, and residents signed an open letter this month to local school officials insisting that the name be changed. And as of Saturday, more than 5,100 people had signed a petition blasting Walpole’s use of a “racist name and mascot.”
Saturday’s gathering, which began at 5 p.m. on the Town Common, was the first of several weekly vigils for racial justice scheduled through July 4.
Chris Cameron, who played with Desamot on the 2008 state championship team, said it is impossible to ignore the mascot’s association with slavery, racism, violence, and hatred.
“These are not the values of this great town, and therefore, these symbols are not worthy of representing Walpole,” he said.
An opposing effort to retain the name is also underway, including a petition that had collected more than 3,300 signatures as of Saturday.
On the petition and social media, supporters of using the Rebels name pointed to local history and the traditions of the town’s sports teams. One commentator on Facebook questioned how a rebel could be seen in a negative light.
“Why is our Walpole mascot name deemed offensive at this time? Definition: Rebel — a person who rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government or ruler,” the commentator wrote.
On Tuesday, the School Committee’s virtual community forum is scheduled to start at 6 p.m., officials said in a statement. The panel will take written comments on the issue through its website. The committee expects to hold a vote on the matter Thursday, the statement said.
“We are committed to listening carefully to our community and our students on this matter,” the statement said. “One of our most important goals is to maintain a school culture that supports all students.”
Renewed concerns over the Rebels nickname come as Black Lives Matter demonstrations have led to a moment of reckoning for memorials to the Confederacy across the country.
For decades, Walpole’s high school yearbooks featured photographs of teams and fans holding Confederate flags, and the symbol appeared on uniforms. At some games, players and fans would sing the lyrics to the Southern anthem “Dixie.”
In 1994, Walpole’s schools removed the Confederate flag as a symbol in response to complaints about the symbol’s “divisiveness and connection to certain hate groups.”
Use of the flag continued, however. The owner of a property abutting an athletic field posted a Confederate flag for years, though it has been since removed. In 2015, Walpole’s School Committee disavowed use of Confederate imagery, but declined to rename the town’s teams.
The petition calling for changing the Rebels’ name said the move was needed immediately “in order to take a step towards righteousness and justice.”
“Though many have opposed this action in the name of school pride and their own personal history with the name, now cannot be the time to take half-measures and appease those with no regard for Black lives and justice,” the petition said.
Desamot, 28, who graduated from the high school in 2010, said the team’s nickname “represents ignorance to a community that has been striving to feel equal."
Desamot, who is Black, experienced nothing but love and respect growing up in Walpole and playing football, he said in an interview before the rally. But he said that not every person of color always had that experience, and he recalled times when Black players on opposing teams would pull him aside to ask him why he played for Walpole, which was perceived as racist due to the use of Confederate imagery, he said.
“I want to be able to say to people proudly I was born and raised in Walpole,” Desamot said. “There is a negative connotation when I say I’m from Walpole — that is enough reason to spark change.”
During the gathering, Cameron told the crowd he empathized with those who want to keep the Rebels name. As a former captain of the football, track, and basketball teams, he is an avid defender of school pride, he said.
Still, he said, those who love Walpole sports should not view the proposed change with sadness.
“We have a chance to signal to our town, our state, and the entire country that Walpole is an inclusive community and welcome to all,” he said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.