For nearly half a century, Denver South High School’s nickname — the Rebels — has been a point of controversy among students, faculty, and alumni.
Now, in the midst of protests nationwide regarding monuments and names deemed offensive, the nickname may soon be no longer. The school has initiated a process of considering alternative nicknames, said South principal Bobby Thomas.
“We have a tagline, ‘We are Denver South,’” he said. “Or in particular, each of us would say, ‘I am Denver South,’ and what that means — that’s around equity, that’s around community, and that’s around inclusion. This has been my calling ever since I got to Denver South, to strive to have that inclusion, that everybody’s voice matters.”
Thomas, who has Black and Mexican heritage, is in his second year as principal. He said the issue of renaming feels personal to him. As it is for Tay Anderson, a Denver Public Schools board member whose activism was instrumental in convincing the Stapleton suburb to change its name. To him, the discussions about Denver South’s nickname come down to a few simple questions.
“Is this who we are?” Anderson said. “Are we better than this? And I believe the Denver Public Schools is better than this. We can make positive change and ensure that every student is being respected when they walk into their school.
“Every student should have pride in their school, but I don’t think that’s been the case for all students that have attended Denver South.”
Historically, alumni have favored the nickname and push back has come from current students and faculty.
Dick Nelson, a former teacher who has been involved with the DPS system since 1960, said South has taken steps to tone down its ties to the Confederacy before. He said North, West, and South chose their mascots based on direction, which led to the latter choosing the “Rebels,” naming its yearbook “The Johnny Reb” and calling its newspaper The Confederate.
According to Nelson, the first seismic shifts occurred in 1970 when South fans brawled with Manual High School supporters after the former’s upset victory in the 1969 boy’s basketball state championship. He believes the fights, coupled with rising racial tensions in Denver at the time, likely led the Colorado High School Activities Association to demand South move away from Confederate imagery.
In the following school year, the Rebels kept Johnny Reb as their mascot and their nickname, but stopped playing “Dixie,” the confederate anthem played at school events, and removed a tile mosaic of a confederate soldier from the school
Controversy surrounding the name continued through the years, though, especially as South became more diverse. Following a student protest in 2009, the DPS Board allowed the high school to change its mascot from “Johnny Rebel” to a griffin based on a gargoyle that stands outside the school. Even though the mascot changed, South’s sports teams continued to use the Rebels nickname, due in part to urging by alums.
“If you talk to any devoted South person, they can’t stand that Gargoyle business,” Nelson said.
For the 2019-20 school year, minorities made up 68% of the school’s 1,605 student population. Thomas said more than 60 languages are spoken at South, and he wants to make sure every voice is heard.
“It’s part of the reason I wanted to be the building leader (at South),” he said. “It’s because of the student body, and how many students are represented, and being able to honor and respect what everybody brings to the table.”
Thomas hopes the community will be receptive to change. His next steps include creating a survey for students, parents, alumni, and faculty once school begins again in the fall. He wants to have conversations after the results are in, and potentially reevaluate the history and symbolism of the school’s nickname, if that is what the community wants.
“We know that our efforts will help ensure that our entire school community will feel affirmed, appreciated, and valued,” he said.