A school mascot is meant to unify — something for everyone to rally around — but controversy over a team name or mascot character isn’t unusual. And in Walpole, Mass., some residents thought they’d left divisions over their team name behind.

But now, as racial justice protests have swept the country, the battle over the Walpole High School’s "Rebels" name has flared up again, ripping open what one Walpole resident calls "a festering wound in this town for decades."

Opponents say now is the time to make a clean break from the Rebel name, while others continue to defend it. Walpole town officials have agreed to hold a public forum before bringing the matter to a vote next week.

Walpole’s athletic teams became “The Rebels” in 1968, and for many years, fans in Walpole’s stands sang “Dixie” and waved Confederate flags. More than 25 years ago, the school dropped the flag as an official symbol but kept the “Rebels” name.

It was the name for those who fought to keep slavery in the United States, and is tied to the Confederate flag waved in battle against the Union. And today, that flag is also used as a white nationalist symbol.

Darley Desamot graduated from Walpole High in 2010 and was a wide receiver on the school's football team. Desamot, who is African-American, still treasures his football jerseys, but thinks the name "Rebel" needs to go.

“It comes full circle, especially with Walpole, to truly get rid of that Confederate flag image, that viewpoint, you have to get rid of that 'Rebel' name, because it was synonymous with the Confederate flag,” he said.

Desamot still lives in Walpole said he loves the community, and that his family has always felt welcome. During his time on the football team, he said he was proud to wear the “Rebel” uniform.

“When you're in the Walpole bubble, you don't know any better. You just have a brotherhood, right? So ... all you know is the camaraderie when you're with your brothers. So when you're inside that bubble, it's a lot different,” he said. “The moment I left the bubble, experiencing life, you see more people. You see [the problem with the name] if you're with people of color a lot more.”

Lindsey Sullivan and her friend Rachel Bagley graduated from Walpole High School in 2018, but it wasn’t until the recent protests that they began to consider the implications of the “Rebels” name. Two weeks ago, they started a petition to change the name.

“Our mission with creating the petition is not to say, ‘Okay, this individual's racist or if you're a player on the football team, you must be racist,’ but rather to look at the ways in which we've perpetuated racism and a glaring injustice in our community by using this name, and how we are all sort of complicit in this by letting it stay this name,” Sullivan said.

“We wanted to work within our own community and see what we could change at the local level," Bagley said. "Because there's obviously a lot of work to do nationally, but at the same time, it's important to look where you grew up and where you come from, and how you can create change there.”

Their petition is supported by the Walpole Justice Coalition, a group that includes several local churches and whose supporters have been holding a daily “Stand Out For Justice” demonstration in the wake of George Floyd’s death. They stand silently in the center of Walpole, holding signs to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Still, the issue is divisive in the town. Sullivan and Bagley say the petition drew sharp responses.

“Overnight, it kind of blew up,” Bagley said. “And I woke up to a bunch of messages on Instagram from members of the football team and other sports teams at the high school, basically telling me to take it down and that it's disrespectful to try to change the name.”

A counter petition to keep the “Rebels” name surfaced shortly after, started by a current high school student. Supporters, including parents and other adults in the town, have posted comments defending the name, writing “it has nothing to do with racism,” and “I'm tired of everyone being offended by everything!!!!”

Walpole School and town officials did not return repeated requests for comment for this story. But on Wednesday, the Walpole School Superintendent and School Committee jointly announced a virtual community forum on June 16, saying that given recent events and increasing concerns over the name, they plan to listen to public input and then put the matter to a vote.

Barry Greener started as a coach at Walpole High School in 1972 and went on to become head football coach. He now coaches part-time and still remembers Confederate flags on the sleeves of some of the school uniforms.

“When there were Confederate flags at the game, and it was part of the high school, there was no intentional racism, but perception is reality,” Greener said. “People that come in, whether they are fans from the town or fans from other teams, perception is reality. If it's offensive to them, it's gotta go. So if 'Rebels' goes bye-bye — we just move on.”

Two years ago, Walpole resident and high school alum Michael Amaral also started a petition to remove the 'Rebel' name.

“We have to have empathy. We have to put ourselves in other people's shoes,” Amaral said.

He graduated in 1971, when the high school yearbook cover featured the Confederate flag. He and several other residents said there are still Confederate flags and images around the town, and Amaral thinks dropping the name will help put the Confederate link to rest.

Amaral also said the mascot contradicts the town’s own history. Many of the town’s citizens fought in the Civil War for the Union, including Sgt. George Morse, who, according to Walpole town history, “joined the Union Army because he wanted to abolish slavery,” and returned South after the war to teach people who had been freed from enslavement.

“It [the 'Rebels'] tends to trivialize the beautiful history that the town of Walpole has. We're not down South. We don't have a dark history in this town. We have a noble history. And we should teach the kids about it,” Amaral said.

Walpole’s athletes are not lone 'Rebels' — more than 300 schools across the country use the name. And from New Jersey to Virginia and Texas, the same debate has broken out.

Rachel Bagley thinks high school students should pick a new name.

“I think it would be a great way to bring students together and create that community and that family and that sense of pride that the other side keeps talking about,” Bagley said.

Greener, the high school coach, said he just wants to move past the controversy.

“Whether they’re the Rebels or something else, big deal. As long as the games can be played, we’re happy,” Greener said.