Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Boone County High School alum still fighting for school to drop the 'Rebels' as mascot

Jess Clark

When Akilah Hughes graduated from Boone County High School in 2005, her school’s mascot was Mr. Rebel — a Confederate soldier. It always made Hughes and other Black students at Boone County High uncomfortable. But it wasn’t until days after Hughes’ 10-year reunion in 2015 that she decided to speak out in an op-ed.

Two years later, Boone County High School decided to drop Mr. Rebel, but kept the name “Rebels.” That announcement was made the same month a Boone County Schools alumnus, who went to Randall K. Cooper High School, plowed his car through a group of counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing Heather Heyer.

Now Hughes is on a mission to convince the community to drop all associations with the Confederacy. She documented her journey in a new podcast due to come out this fall called “Rebel Spirit.” Hughes spoke with LPM News’ Jess Clark on a recent trip to Florence.

Questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Jess Clark: What were your experiences being represented by Mr. Rebel? What comes up for you?

Akilah Hughes: Yeah, it's a great question. When I was doing speech and drama — that was my main extracurricular — winning awards with the team and them being like “The Rebels!” And like having it on the announcements — it was just this weird cognitive dissonance where we're like, “Why are we winning things for the Confederacy?” So we were all super aware of it, and pep rallies and all that sort of stuff, just, it would say “Rebel pride.” And it's like, I don't really have that. But there were also specific instances that I remember that were just a little hard.

Mr. Rebel poses with a rival mascot for a photo in the Boone County Hight School 2007 yearbook.
Boone County High School
Mr. Rebel poses with a rival mascot for a photo in the Boone County Hight School 2007 yearbook.

We had a Black [assistant] principal, whose name kind of ironically is George Floyd. And he was an NFL football player. He was a big deal for the school community. And I went to school with his son. His office was destroyed, like spray painted with slurs. And all the Black kids were talking about it, but the administration just was like, “Don't walk down that hallway, we're gonna have some construction to fix it.” And it was this real undercurrent of you know, if you were on the football team, and you were Black, you kind of had some protection. But the other kids, the Black kids were doing everything else just sort of felt like we are not wanted here.

JC: Yeah, I was gonna ask, did the mascot and the ties to the Confederacy of the mascot — did that feel connected to the school culture broadly?

AH: Yeah, I remember when I first started there — I started my sophomore year in 2002 — that was when they got rid of the Confederate flag on the gym floor…I had teachers who, in class will talk about how, “the Confederate flag is not offensive. It's just our heritage.” … And like, there was always an era of ignorance around the history and the truth of this area.

JC: This you've pointed out, I think, at school board meetings: that Kentucky was actually not a part of the Confederacy.

AH: Yeah, I think that's what's so stark about all of this is like, the true history of this area is that there were far more Union soldiers from northern Kentucky. After the war ended, there were some people who were Confederate sympathizers who had a lot of like racist terrorism and lynchings. But generally speaking this area and going up towards Cincinnati was a lot more Union. When we spoke with some great historians for this podcast project — and like local historians — they really pointed out that a lot of this Confederate imagery came from a backlash to civil rights in the ‘50s. It wasn't the heritage of the town. It's just when you have to integrate, and you have to have Black kids going to school with your white children, you might start putting up flags and tell Black people to get out of here.

The 1985 Boone County High School yearbook has an even more explicitly Confederate representation of its mascot, the Rebels.
Boone County High School
The 1985 Boone County High School yearbook has an even more explicitly Confederate representation of its mascot, the Rebels.

JC: Have you talked to students who currently attend Boone County High School about their thoughts on still being called the Rebels?

AH: Yeah. So we talked to one student who was great. He actually transferred to Boone County. He's a freshman now, but he started in Louisville. And he's biracial. And he was really candid, and was just like, “it's weird that they talk about Rebel pride.” He's on the basketball team, and he's like, “this is so backwards.” You know, they have a shooting machine — it's like a machine that shoots the ball to them. And he's like, “so I get passed the ball from a Confederate general…he's on the shooting machine.” It's very strange to still be dealing with it. And even as the school is more diverse, he was just so honest that it's a lot of white kids, and so there are moments of tension. But Gen Z is so cool that I just feel like this is so beneath them. I went to school in the shadow of 9/11. So it's like it was a different time here. We're now in a time where the whole country is more diverse. The world is more intertwined with the internet. We are seeing so much more that I think that to them, it really doesn't make sense that the school would be holding on to it.

JC: Have you talked to people in the community who are attached still to Mr. Rebel and being called the Rebels? 

AH: You know, what's really interesting is when I wrote my article in 2015, there were people who came out of the woodwork to support Mr. Rebel and the Confederate imagery at the school. And specifically like older individuals who had gone to school or taught there. We've reached out a lot to try to talk to them. And the response is just like, “Well, this is just put to bed,” “the physical mascot is gone,” “I don't know why you care.” It's very defensive, because I think they feel they've already lost. But I think that the school is still acting in a way like they're worried about backlash…Perhaps there's a fear that this is going to become a bigger issue.

And yeah, who knows? Violence is obviously scary. And you wouldn't want anybody to do anything on behalf of a stupid mascot they should get rid of. I understand the fear. And it's also like teachers are busy, schools are busy. It's important to focus on test scores. But I also just think that it's not worth letting so many students have to deal with this sort of B-storyline of racism for the four years they’re in the walls [because the administration is] afraid of community members. Like, let those people be upset about it. They'll move on. They're not the ones affected anymore.

JC: Tell me about the alternative mascot that you are proposing.

AH: [laughs] Okay, so this is probably helping with the backlash, but I'm proposing that Boone County becomes The Biscuits. I've thought about it a lot. The response you get when you ask people, “Why does it have to be the Rebels?” is “Well, that's our southern heritage.” And I'm like, “Actually, your southern heritage is biscuits.” I've lived in New York, I've lived in Florida, I've lived in California, the biscuits in the South are you know, they're better here than anywhere. They're from here … It is the sort of an identifying force. Everybody loves them. Everybody can get behind it. It's a little irreverent for a high school, so I don't know that that will work out in the end. But ultimately, you know, it has the same syllables. The cheerleaders can you know: “Boone County Biscuits! All right! All right! All right!” Easy enough. So I sort of just think that it's a fun idea. And if it gets the conversation started, then that's enough.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the white nationalist who drove his car into Heather Heyer, killing her, attended Randall K. Cooper High School. 

Copyright 2024 LPM News