Charlotte schools have debated ‘offensive’ mascot names for decades. What’s changed?

Charlotte schools have debated ‘offensive’ mascot names for decades. What’s changed?
Parkwood High School is changing its mascot from the “Rebels” after the Union County School Board voted to remove it this week (Source: OBSERVER FILE PHOTO DLAIRD@CHARLOTTEOBSERVER.COM)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - In the late 1980s, back when Maseo Bolin was an all-star quarterback at West Mecklenburg, he didn’t understand what was offensive about his school’s mascot being the “Indians.”

“As a kid, I wasn’t in tune enough to understand with (the mascot) being an Indian,” said Bolin, who has since been inducted to the West Meck and North Carolina A&T halls of fame. “Rebels in high school as a nickname, well, I knew what a Rebel was. I knew that was offensive. I wouldn’t have viewed an Indian at that time in my life as derogatory. Now, I’m much more informed and know how people can feel a need for change, especially in light of where we are in this country right now.”

Some of that change came Tuesday when the Union County School Board voted to retire the school nickname at Parkwood High School, which was known as the Rebels. The school opened in 1961, and until 2008, its primary mascot was a confederate soldier.

Like at West Mecklenburg — which changed its nickname and mascot to “Hawks” in 2004 — the move wasn’t popular with everyone.

“I feel the ones not happy about (the old nickname), either they or someone in their family experienced some hate at some time when they were at Parkwood,” said Parkwood boys basketball coach Mike Helms, who graduated from the school in 1978. “And I think the people so opposed to it are families that have been there forever, and especially when you get older, you don’t like change. And we just fight change. I think they see themselves as Parkwood Rebels, and to me, that’s fine, but now we’ve got to pick this ball up and move forward. Let’s not divide our great community.”

In the general Charlotte-area, there are 11 schools that still use Native American imagery in mascots or have native American names. In Gaston County, there is a battle brewing to drop that number to 10.

There is a petition there to change the name and image of the South Point High School mascot. The school’s Red Raiders’ nickname — referencing Native Americans — some feel, is offensive. A 2003 graduate started a change.org petition recently to change the school’s mascot, and a counter petition has also popped up that hopes to keep the name in place.

South Point and Parkwood are not the only area schools that have faced these issues, however.

AT NORTH MECK, REBELS DIED HARD

When Leroy Holden was hired at North Mecklenburg in 1971, the school’s nickname was the Rebels and a group of Black students had been fighting to get that changed, as well as have a papier-maché figure of a Confederate soldier removed from the student lounge and gym.

Back then, the school sung “Dixie” at sporting events, and North Meck graduate Lamar Reid told the Observer in an interview six years ago that white students protested the proposed those changes, including by calling black students derogatory names, waving Confederate flags from their cars and defacing school property with racist language.

“Even though we had school integration, North Meck was racially divided,” Reid told the Observer. “All over the nation, people were speaking out. During our school walkout, we sang ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We also voted to start an organization called ‘Students for Black Achievement.’ So we had two student council groups.”

Holden — who won more than 400 games as North Meck’s boys basketball coach from 1974-1999 and became one of the school’s most beloved figures — said it was a “turbulent time.”

In 1974, Holden said the school changed the name from Rebels to Vikings and removed all Rebel imagery.

“All those kids that had come through there and were established in the community, they were against the name change,” said Holden, now 75 and retired. “But it had to be done. Honestly, there was not a whole lot of opposition to it, when it was finally done. I thought it went very smooth. Once it blended in, everybody came together.”

Thirty years later, when another Mecklenburg County school went through its name change, the transition didn’t go as smooth.

CONTROVERSY IN WEST MECK

West Mecklenburg, built on Tuckaseegee Road in 1951 just west of the Catawba River, was given the nickname Indians to honor a group of Native Americans who once lived near the school.

By 2004, just four of West Mecklenburg’s 1,500 students were Native American, and several Native American groups were pushing for a mascot change, saying the name didn’t honor their heritage.

“I think this will be able to open some eyes,” said Letha Strickland, who was executive director of the Metrolina Native American Association in 2004. “I know people sometimes think there was honor in those type of nicknames, but Native American students often don’t like the way it is displayed.”

Still, many students and alumni wanted the name to stay. Some still feel that way, said 1978 graduate Dale Ross.

“Change is difficult for some people to accept,” said Ross, who is a co-host on the Observer’s high school sports show, Talking Preps. “When you grow up with something that is somewhat a part of you, you want to hang on to it. Some people can let it go. And names are different: Red Raiders, Warriors, Indians. A Red Raider is a Warrior but that may be more derogatory. I don’t know.

“It’s hard to have empathy when you’re not on that side of the coin.”

At West Meck, Ross said the name change divided the school, in some respects. Those that graduated before 2004 don’t always associate their school with what came after.

Ross said going to West Mecklenburg made him curious about the school’s mascot.

“It caused me to want to learn about the culture of Native Americans and when I did, my opinions of Native Americans changed,” Ross said. “Growing up, we played Germans or Americans, when we played war, or Cowboys and Indians. The only positive Indian figure I had was Tonto (from the “Lone Ranger”). In movies, they were depicted as savages. I didn’t think of them that way, but I didn’t think of them as the good guy. What we were taught in history didn’t impact me as much about what we took away from them until I became a (West Meck) Indian and started learning.”

Former West Meck quarterback Joe Evans, class of ’98, was an assistant football coach at the school in 2004 when the name changed. Evans said another reason why people were offended, at the time, wasn’t so much the name, but how other schools received them.

“When we went to (other schools),” he said, “they would have ‘Scalp Those Indians’ signs and ‘Dry Those Indians Out.’ That was a big push behind why they changed the name. It never bothered me because I grew up there. It was all I’d known. We’re right here on the Catawba River and you had Catawba Indians there.”

Bolin, who was the West Meck quarterback a decade before Evans, came to understand the need for change.

“It’s offensive to a group of people, and you have to pay attention to that,” Bolin said, “and just because I didn’t understand in high school didn’t mean it was not the right thing to do.”

BY 6-2, THE REBEL IS NO MORE

The Parkwood High nickname has long been talked about in Union County as advocacy groups have fought for the school to change it. From 1990-94, the school was not allowed to have the name “Rebel” on any uniform.

In 2009, the Union County NAACP made an effort to get the mascot changed, calling it a form of “intimidation and harassment.” School officials kept the Rebels nickname but dropped the Confederate soldier from their logo. It became a shield with a “P” in it above a sword.

Another Union County School, Monroe High, changed its mascot from Rebels to the Redhawks in 1995.

“This issue has come up several times,” Helms, the basketball coach, said. “To be honest, when Monroe High changed their name, in my mind, I thought we would be next. I just thought it would filter down to us and it didn’t happen for whatever reason.”

That changed Tuesday.

During the meeting, Union County School Board Chair Melissa Merrell said she had been inundated with emails from families who were offended by the name, and after some research she felt the nickname was in violation of Board Policy 1-33.

That policy states any school mascot or nickname “shall respect cultural differences and values. The board prohibits use of any race or ethnic group as a mascot or nickname.”

Through a schools spokesperson, Merrell declined to comment about the decision to the Observer.

Board member Joe Morreale made the motion to drop the Rebels nickname saying, “It’s clearly offensive, as we’ve seen citizens voice their opinions, on that it does not respect cultural differences and values.”

Board member Candice Sturdivant said she felt Parkwood needed a fresh start.

“I tie Rebel with hatred,” she said. “It defies authority. ... Remove the Rebel.”

The board voted.

Six voted to remove the Rebels nickname. Two voted to keep.

MOVE FORWARD, TOGETHER

Watching from Charlotte, Bolin felt the Union County board did the right thing.

“It’s overdue,” he said. “It may be viewed to some as their history and heritage. It’s very offensive to others. When you understand true history, you can understand how that makes a certain population feel that contributes to that school and how it promotes an ideology that is detrimental to our society.”

Bolin said it was no different to North Meck changing its mascot years ago, West Meck in 2004 or the NFL team in Washington on the verge of changing its mascot and nickname.

“It’s surprising we got to this point after one incident (the George Floyd case in Minnesota),” Bolin said, “but that started it all. But if that mascot oppresses a certain part of the population in any way, I think you should look at changing it.”

Helms will begin his second stint coaching at his alma mater in the 2020-21 season. His first run started in 1994. For the past 11 seasons, he was at Union County rival Cuthbertson, which he led to back-to-back state championship appearances in 2012 and ’13.

Helms said what’s happening at his school now is similar to what happened in Charlotte.

“We’re kind of split in half,” he said. “Some are excited and some are up in arms. What we’ve got to do is come together for our young people. They didn’t have anything to do with this. And I didn’t come back to coach a mascot. I came back to inspire, and mentor and love the young people that live in our community -- and that’s not a job I take lightly.”

CONTROVERSIAL MASCOTS?

After the Union County School Board voted to remove the Rebels nickname from Parkwood High School, 11 schools in the Charlotte Observer’s coverage are have Confederate- or Native American-themed mascots.

NORTH CAROLINA

  • Cabarrus Warriors
  • East Gaston Warriors
  • South Point Red Raiders
  • South Stanly Rebel Bulls
  • St. Stephens Indians
  • West Caldwell Warriors
  • West Iredell Warriors
  • West Lincoln Rebels

SOUTH CAROLINA

  • Cheraw Braves
  • Indian Land Warriors
  • Westminster Catawba Indians