Brattleboro Union High School rallied around the same Colonel mascot used by the University of Mississippi until both institutions retired the character in the early 2000s.
Kevin O’Connor/
Brattleboro Union High School rallied around the same Colonel mascot used by the University of Mississippi until both institutions retired the character in the early 2000s.

BUHS team name sparks Civil War of opinion

Colonel supporters aren’t surrendering without a fight, as seen through dozens of social media posts criticizing the proposed change

BRATTLEBORO — When Brattleboro Union High School rang in the Happy Days of 1950 with a new team nickname, the local newspaper warned that fans might face a potential hiccup.

“The one fear of the student body in choosing 'Colonels' is that some sports-writing sharpshooter will make with the levity and call the B.H.S. athletes the Korny Kernels,” the Brattleboro Reformer wrote at the time.

Few would foresee the name sparking a Civil War of sharper words.

The Colonel moniker, unveiled to honor Union soldiers who mustered at the school's Fairground Road location in the 1860s, morphed into a “Pride of the South” Confederate mascot by the 1970s.

“No one bothered to connect the dots between embracing racist imagery and symbolism and the effects such symbols have on the community,” resident Curtiss Reed Jr. wrote in a 2003 commentary.

The op-ed and the discussion that followed is widely credited with - or blamed for - spurring the school to retire its antebellum plantation-owner character.

New state law requires 'nondiscriminatory school branding'

Fast-forward to the state's 2022 law requiring “nondiscriminatory school branding” that avoids stereotyping race, religion, nationality or sexual identity or referencing those “associated with the repression of others.”

“Where the mascot began and where it is now are two different places, but it is intrinsically linked forever with the racist history,” Lana Dever, a Brattleboro representative to the Windham Southeast School District Board, recently told her colleagues.

“What we really need to do is step forward, acknowledge the painful past, and work to have a new name that represents all of our students,” she said.

That could take place as soon as the board's May 9 meeting. But Colonel supporters aren't surrendering without a fight, as seen through dozens of social media posts criticizing the proposed change.

“I grew up as a minority wearing the name across my chest as an athlete with pride,” Johnathan Wong, a 2008 alumnus, wrote on Facebook. “Choosing to drop the name throws away traditions/history that existed before all of us.”

Many locals mistakenly assume “Colonel” refers to the town's 1700s namesake, Col. William Brattle. Instead, the school introduced the name 70 years ago in recognition of its new home on the community's old Civil War campgrounds, according to Joe Rivers, a social studies teacher and a leader of the Brattleboro Historical Society.

The Colonels were no more than a name until the 1970s, when the school adopted the same white-goateed plantation owner mascot then used by the University of Mississippi. That led some students to wave Confederate flags at games and, in 1998, someone burned a doll depicting a Black person in the annual homecoming bonfire.

Enter Reed, who moved to town to become executive director of the locally based ALANA Community Organization, now the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. He couldn't believe the logo he saw on school uniforms was the same “Colonel Reb” that Mississippi was retiring after complaints it was racist.

“The colonel is a vestige of a time when Blacks, the descendants of slaves, were openly and defiantly denied their civil rights by white Americans,” Reed wrote in his 2003 commentary. “Do we want to develop future generations of local employees incapable of 'sealing the deal' with ethnically, racially and linguistically diverse consumers and suppliers because of their 'innocent displays' of hate-perpetuating symbols on their desks, in their cubicles or in their speech?”

School leaders went on to retire the mascot in 2004 but retain the “Colonel” moniker, only to see the issue resurface again and again.

A “Change the Racist Colonel” petition that has lingered online for years has attracted more than 1,500 signatures.

“While changing the image was a step, it simply was not enough,” the petition states in part. “By having a name with an overt connection to slavery, the Civil War South and the racist history of Brattleboro, BUHS is telling its students of color that it is not a space meant for them.”

In response, a “Save the Name Colonels” counter-petition has drawn a similar number of supporters who argue the moniker is no longer connected to the Confederacy.

“The image has been removed from the school for over 15 years as of now and no longer has ties to the name,” the petition states in part.

Even if those arguments persuaded school leadership, that would probably not happen for another reason: trademark infringement.

In another commentary in the Reformer in 2004, Reed observed that the school district had taken the image of the mascot from the University of Mississippi and the university asserted its intellectual property in correspondence to BUHS in 2002 and in 2004.

“The school board in its decision to retire the image had to have been acutely aware of the trademark infringement issues,” Reed wrote, and thus “our community and its elected officials were compelled to act on behalf of its removal.”

Students look back and ahead

Of Brattleboro's nearly 800 ninth- through 12th-graders, 15% identify as something other than “white,” according to school statistics.

None of the dozens of students practicing baseball, softball, lacrosse, track and tennis one recent day could be seen wearing anything bearing the word “Colonel” - although a few teams jokingly referred to themselves as the “Popcorn Kernels.”

Habame Scholz-Karabakakis, a member of the school board's Student Advisory Committee, has suggested both regular recognition of the past and a new name for the future.

“Even though it's history, and very shameful history, I think we should teach our own history,” the senior said. “That would really shed a lot of light on where we are now and how far we've come.”

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