My small Vermont hometown has made the national news circuit on just a handful of occasions since I was a kid: the Bush-Cheney arrest warrant, the public nudity ban, the closing of the nuclear power plant, the annual cow parade, and the time my high school retired Colonel Reb as our mascot.
He wasn't called Colonel Reb, of course. He was just "the Colonel." Save for a purple-and-white color scheme, he was identical in every way to Ole Miss's mascot. The Colonel had been around since the 1950s, when, as the story goes, Brattleboro Union High School's student council randomly chose Colonel Reb out of a mail-order mascot catalog. To some degree, it was a sensible choice. Brattleboro is, after all, named after Colonel William Brattle, an old white guy who owned lots of land. What's more, our playing fields had once hosted Vermont soldiers—Union solders—as they prepared for the Civil War. I doubt anyone at the time recognized it as a caricature of a Confederate plantation owner or questioned whether it was a paradoxical choice for the state that was the first in the Union to abolish slavery. It's unlikely anyone even made a connection to Ole Miss. The Colonel was just a sketch in a book.
It wasn't until the past decade that people began to seriously examine the mascot's implications, and in 2004 a townwide debate broke out over symbols, tradition, and race that prefigured the one still raging today in Oxford, Miss.—except that this one happened deep in the macramé heart of Blue America.
Vermont wasn't always this way, of course. In the 1950s, the state was very white (OK, it still is), and very Republican. I mean, Alf Landon won Vermont in the 1936 presidential election—the Alf Landon who lost to FDR 523-8 in the electoral vote. I don't say this to imply that Vermont was therefore racist, but in the 1950s, it lacked the homemade-granola stereotype that it wears today like a badge. The "P.C." brigade that mobilized to retire the Colonel in 2004 just wasn't around back then.
Vermont's politics only really shifted dramatically to the left in the 1990s, with an influx of liberal urban expats like my parents, and now we have the nation's only socialist senator. To generalize just a bit, this created a political tension in Brattleboro between the children of multi-generational Vermonters—with kids whose parents and grandparents competed as Colonels—and the new Boomer-spawned kids and their ultra-sensitive parents. That tension, along with a general ignorance of historical and geographical context, because this was about here and now and only us, informed the circuitous debate on the removal of the 50-year-old Brattleboro Colonel.
The mascot may have been an innocuous choice in the 1950s, a random finger pointing at a random page in a random book, but it evolved into something else entirely in the late 1990s.
In 1998, the school banned bonfires at our pep rallies because someone had dangled an effigy of a black doll above the flames, and soon after that, a letter to the local newspaper pointed out that it was, well, kind of odd that our football team's rallying cry was "pride of the south." The team had it printed on their hand towels, on the doghouse in the corner of the field, and on its sweatshirts.
To the football team, of course, it meant pride of southern Vermont. Having won just a single state title in school history, Brattleboro Union had developed a bit of an inferiority complex in relation to the much better "northern" teams over the years. But when the phrase was coupled with the Southern slave owner on the team bumper stickers, and when those bumper stickers were affixed to the pickup trucks that flew their Confederate flags in the high school parking lot, well, people did double-takes. There were always a lot of Confederate flags.
So in 2004, after a year of debate, the administration asked that we retire our Colonel—the wandering Colonel Reb who had come to us some 1,300 miles from Oxford. The arguments against the decision read almost exactly as the ones seen in recent pieces on Ole Miss's Colonel Reb. It "wasn't meant to be racist." It was "a part of school pride." The administration had no right to "mess with history." Those who wanted to retire the mascot were too concerned with being "politically correct."
We had a lot of school-wide forums to hash it out and rehash it out, and in a final vote my sophomore year, the student body voted to retain the name without an official mascot image. Like Ole Miss, the administration did not allow for the option to preserve the Colonel himself. The student body has not since mobilized to pick a new image. The northern football teams keep winning the state championships, and almost every year, the local newspaper reports instances of overt racism at the high school.
When Ole Miss's Colonel Reb stepped down this month, we heard a lot of talk about James Meredith and the University's troubling history of racial segregation—as if the mascot were the only reference point we have for that ugly past. It's not. There are still visible bullet marks at the Lyceum from the day Meredith walked to class. But there are other, seemingly incongruous historical markers that don't fit so neatly into the narrative we've been taught since elementary school. A Colonel Reb, for instance, in Brattleboro, Vt.
Or this: Last year, about five years after the Brattleboro Colonel hung up his hat, a handful of underclassmen started a hate group called the Nigger Hanging Redneck Association. Sometimes they would get drunk in the woods and, according to police reports, pee in jugs and spray-paint "NHRA" and "KKK" on old pieces of plywood. One day, a 17-year-old member threatened a black student with a gun on the street. He was placed under house arrest and charged with two hate crimes.
It's not because of a mascot, and it never was. The old Colonel didn't bring intolerance from Oxford to Brattleboro—it was with us all along. It's easy to ridicule Ole Miss and all that desperate clinging to outdated tradition, but racial resentment isn't exclusive to the South and its symbols. It was certainly there in a corner of Vermont, just waiting for the right provocation—an influx of outsiders like my parents, a threat to a cherished tradition—before it could come bubbling to the surface.
My younger brother graduated from Brattleboro Union last spring. There were Confederate flags in the parking lot. Reb the mascot was long gone, but the Reb within lives on.