WALPOLE — The School Committee took steps Thursday night to distance itself from a Confederate flag overlooking the high school athletic field, voting to permanently block the rebel emblem flying on private property with a public banner emblazoned with a big W and with a second banner printed with a disavowal of the divisive symbol.
“Walpole is not a racist town and does not want to be perceived that way,” School Committee chairwoman Nancy Gallivan said before the unanimous vote.
But the board stopped short of renaming its high school athletic teams — the Rebels — instead voting to rebrand the name in a way that severs any connection to the Confederacy.
While several people urged the committee to drop the Rebel name and start fresh, others said it was a source of pride.
“It’s a great honor to say I am a Walpole Rebel,” said Joseph Parlon, a federal agent for the Department of Homeland Security who graduated from Walpole High School in 1989. “I understand what the [Confederate] flag represents and the harm it instills, but I oppose changing the name Rebels.”
School Superintendent Lincoln Lynch III told the board “the Rebel name belongs to the community, but we have to disassociate it from anything that brings shame to our community.”
A group of students, teachers, and administrators was charged with forming more positive Rebel images, with suggestions ranging from the patriots of the American Revolution to scientific rebel Galileo.
The Confederate flag became a hot topic in town in June after a racially motivated massacre in a black Charleston, S.C., church and the subsequent decision to remove the flag from the state’s Capitol.
The flag’s connection to Walpole dates to the 1960s, when the team name changed from the Hilltoppers to the Rebels, and football coach John Lee used the Confederate theme to inspire an underdog mentality and revive a failing program.
Walpole dropped the Confederate symbol in 1994. But about five years ago, a 1969 Walpole High graduate put up a large Dixie flag in his backyard, which abuts Walpole High’s Turco Field.
Joseph Finneran has said he erected the flag to honor the Rebels football team and has no intention of taking it down.
At this spring’s high school graduation, the school unveiled a 14-by-7-foot banner marked with a “W” to block Finneran’s flag. The School Committee’s vote means the banner will remain up permanently.
A second banner also will be installed and carry the message: “The Confederate flag is viewed as a divisive, hurtful, and offensive symbol by many people. The Walpole School Committee apologizes to anyone who may be offended by the private citizen who chooses to display a Confederate flag on private property in close proximity to the Walpole High School field. It does not in any way reflect values that we support and is not a symbol associated with or supported by Walpole Public Schools.”
Stephanie Rodriguez Wilkes, who has two children in the Walpole schools, said that as an African American she was concerned that the banners would not do enough to block the flag.
“To me, it looks like a Band-aid,” she said. “The question is, is that enough?”
Johanna Seltz can be reached at email@example.com.