The Anaheim Union High School District voted Monday night to rebrand a high school mascot that depicts a Confederate soldier. A group of mostly African American students and community members had asked the board to replace the “Johnny Rebel” mascot at Savanna High School, saying it was offensive.
The five-member board of trustees made the decision to keep the "Rebels" name but remove all references to the Confederacy, after listening to several dozen students, alumni and community members voice opinions on the issue in an emotional meeting held in Savanna’s auditorium.
"No one should glorify a man who agrees with slavery,” said Bianca Garcia, who graduated in 2009 and said she was a finalist for the school’s Miss Rebel competition as a student. "We cannot keep Johnny, he is dated and offensive.”
Tommy Kearney, who graduated in 1987, asked the board to keep the mascot. "Not once did any of us look at Johnny Rebel as a racist symbol,” he said, wearing a Savanna football T-shirt emblazoned with the face of the mustachioed mascot.
The board decision, which passed with four members in favor and one abstaining, means the school will still be “home of the Rebels” but all references to the Confederacy will be removed along with the cartoon Johnny Rebel mascot.
It’s unclear whether Savanna will replace the cartoon image with another. Most school uniforms and spirit wear no longer include the image.
Many students spoke in favor of rebranding the Rebel name rather than scrapping it all together.
“We can give a new definition to this mascot," Savanna senior Alma Valenzuela told the board. “It does not define us, we define it.”
In a recent poll taken on the issue, 56 percent of the school’s student body agreed with Valenzuela that rebranding the Rebel name was the best option.
In the end, board members said they wanted to respect the students’ wishes. Several also noted that rebranding the mascot would be cheaper than replacing it — nearly five times cheaper, an estimated $51,000, according to the district’s calculations.
Matthew Thomas, one of the students who initially brought his concerns about the mascot to the district board of trustees, said after the vote that he was disappointed but called rebranding the Rebel name “a start.”
Thomas, who plays several sports at Savanna and is president of the school’s black student union, said he had hoped the board would erase any chance that some might still associate the school’s mascot with slavery or the Confederate cause.
“It’s troubling and it feels like a step back in history,” he said.
Savanna High School’s student body is overwhelmingly made up of students of color. Just 9 percent identifies as non-Hispanic white, according to state data.