The Rebel past

In 2012, an unidentified lady and I sat next to each other at a Hays Consolidated School District Board (HCISD) meeting. We stood to speak on opposite sides of a volatile issue: display of the Confederate flag at Jack C. Hays High School. She spoke in support of flag displays, sharing that her great-grandfather had fought for Texas against the United States during the Civil War. I argued against the flag as a veteran who had sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and as a former U.S. diplomat. After we spoke, we returned to our seats next to each other.

Recently, some HCISD parents have suggested we retire the Hays Rebel mascot, and Mayor Travis Mitchell has proposed a vote to replace Rebel as a Kyle street name. We, as a community, should do both. Confederate symbols cannot be credibly detached from their disturbing history in support of slavery and the preservation of white supremacy. Texas’ role in that history should be remembered, not venerated. Hays County residents can love our state and regret parts of its history.

I was born and raised in East Texas, surrounded by Confederate symbols, including the flag and ubiquitous bumper stickers proclaiming, “the South will rise again.” Symbols carry meanings. That’s why questions of removing them evoke so much emotion. There, the symbols empowered white American schoolmates to call me the n-word. They affirmed a culture of racism responsible for a jarring disruption of my childhood innocence: regularly watching white Americans call my father “boy,” bringing down the biggest man I’ve ever known, right in front of me.

Since arriving in Kyle, a decade ago, greeted by Confederate flags and debates over “Dixie,” students have assaulted my children with the n-word and felt entitled to physically abuse them “because you are Black.” Symbols carry meanings. HCISD teachers and officials have been relentless in their care for my kids after these unfortunate, unforgettable incidents. A positive move toward emphasizing that all kids matter equally in Hays CISD is to retire the Rebel mascot.

The Confederate symbols of my childhood said to Black residents, “This is our town, our Texas; not yours.” The “South” of the slogan referred to a Texas that enslaved Black residents, a Texas that lynched Black men after church services, and a Texas that did not permit black and white children to attend school together. The symbols, their message, and the mistreatment were real. And, they were wrong. That was our town equally as it was theirs. Confederate symbols have no place in Kyle. My family may not be from here, but Kyle is our home. The Texas that Confederate symbols represent no longer exits. It’s history. Let’s replace the street name with one that reflects the city and the state we have become and hope to be.

After the HCISD Board meeting, the lady and I exited together. She asked, “How can I go against the flag, and still honor my great-grandfather?” That was the real question. She wanted to honor her family’s history. In response, I found the remembrances of General Ulysses S. Grant instructive. At the Confederate surrender, he considered the army of General Robert E. Lee “a foe who had fought so long and valiantly… for a cause, though that cause, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” I suggested to the lady, “You can honor the memory of your great-grandfather by remembering his devotion to fight for his beliefs. You do not dishonor his memory by holding a different belief.”

Twenty years ago, when our community first debated changing the flag from Hays, one resident argued, “The Rebel flag, the Rebel name and Dixie are all about who we are.” Some people may still believe that. I disagree. I do not think Kyle is a town that honors the horrors of slavery. I do not think HCISD parents want my children demeaned with racist epithets. Even if Confederate symbols once represented those things in Kyle, they do not represent who we are.

I am a U.S. historian who believes our nation advances as each generation completes the Founders’ work “to form a more perfect Union.” In 1961, Kyle ISD superintendent William “Moe” Johnson, newspaperman Bob Barton, Jr., and grocer Willie Tenorio led Kyle to become the state’s first community to vote for school integration. In 2015, Hays students voted for a new school song. And here we are, in 2020, a thriving city, facing questions of Confederate symbols that represent who we want to be when our children replace us as leaders.

Let’s put the Rebel to rest. Let’s remove the Confederacy from our streets and our school and allow it to live where it belongs: in history.

After our talk in the parking lot, the lady and I shook hands and departed, probably still disagreeing. Despite this, we had moved closer to each other through mutual respect and a shared love for our school.

I think that’s how we move beyond the past – together, as a community, with respect and care for each other.

Ronald Angelo Johnson, Ph.D. is the Presidential Fellow and Associate Professor of History at Texas State University.

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