After decades of controversy over a team name viewed by many as racist, Walpole High School will drop the mascot name “Rebels.”

On Thursday night, Walpole’s seven-member school committee voted unanimously to remove the name from their teams in favor of a name yet to be selected.

“It is time, time for a change,” said Walpole School Superintendent Bridget Gough.”Time for this name to be laid to rest. As leaders, we know better, and therefore we must do better.”

Several school committee members said that removing the “Rebel” name should be an educational opportunity for students. Walpole School Committee member Kari Denitzio called for “anti-racist content” to be added to the school curriculum and for “recruiting and retaining teachers of color, particularly African-American teachers, of which Walpole has none.”

It took the tide of anger and calls for racial justice after the police killing of George Floyd to remove the name, which is linked to the Confederate flag and the Confederacy's fight to keep slavery during the Civil War.

Decades ago, the Walpole school removed Confederate flags from “Rebel” uniforms and then officially barred the flag as a symbol. But in recent weeks,several petitions to change the Walpole team name swiftly gained support. On Tuesday night, the committee heard from dozens of local residents, teachers and Walpole alums who overwhelmingly and passionately called for the name change.

Walpole School Committtee Vice-Chair Nancy Gallivan said that she previously supported the “Rebel” name, but those voices, and the perception of the town as racist, swayed her decision.

"I want to move away from that and find something we can all be proud of, and start our own new legacy that represents our town in a positive way," Gallivan said.

The town held a meeting for public comment on Tuesday, when many who spoke referenced fear that the name instilled in students of color at Walpole and in schools of visiting athletes. The town of Walpole is predominantly white and less than 2% black.

Three black Walpole High School alums spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, including 2019 grad Sherayna Louissant, who told the committee the “Rebels” name made going to Walpole High “a bad experience.”

“The world is a constant reminder of hatred for black students,” Louissant said, “If you keep the 'Rebel' name, you’ll keep students who look like me in the shadows. But you’ll also be telling them, you want them to stay there.”

Tuesday’s meeting also gave lie to the idea that getting rid of the flag at the school laid to rest any racist meaning in the “Rebel” name.

In a startling moment during the meeting, 2014 graduate James Lombardi, a former Walpole football player and wrestler, described the hazing carried out in his sophomore year by older teammates. He said he and other sophomore members of the football team were “forced to kneel and chant ‘I wish I was in the land of cotton’” from “Dixie,” a song popularized in the mid 1800s in minstrel shows. Lombardi said he was “ashamed” of his actions in high school.

“This is a song that is sung by your students in your school,” Lombardi told the committee. “The ritualistic hazing shocks me as I think back on it now.”

He said the committee had the “moral duty” to change the “Rebels” name.

Walpole’s head football coach Chris Sullivan and two current students were among the handful of those who had pleaded with the committee to keep the "Rebel" name on Tuesday.

“A Rebel does not hate, a Rebel does not see color,” Sullivan said. “A Rebel simply works harder than the opposition.”

The name was given to Walpole’s teams in the late 1960s by Coach John Lee — known as “General Lee” — who was brought to the school from Memphis to reshape the then-struggling athletic teams. The name triggered decades of fans singing “Dixie” in the stands and waving Confederate flags. Despite the school removing Confederate flags from the uniforms in the 1980s and barring the flag in the mid ‘90s, the school kept the “Rebels” name.

Despite supporters' insistence that the team name was not intended to be racist, several speakers said Tuesday that people outside Walpole didn’t feel safe visiting or working in Walpole because of the “Rebels” name.

2012 graduate Bill Cullinane, also a former Rebels football player, recalled a summer job after his senior year when black coworkers confronted him about the name.

“I remember several of them mentioning that they hated Walpole because we were a racist town,” Cullinane said. “They didn’t feel safe coming to Walpole to play games. Their families didn’t feel comfortable sitting in the bleachers. ... The students will continue to make the connection and celebrate the Confederacy as they still do to that day.”

Teacher Samantha Rafferty said there is no way to disassociate the name from the Confederacy.

”For years, students and families of color have told Walpole publicly and privately that the Rebel name is a contributing factor in an environment that leaves them marginalized and underserved,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty also said that the “racist name” impacted the impression of prospective teachers and that she herself had “inwardly debated” whether to apply to the school for that reason.

2008 Walpole grad and current Special Education teacher James Connolly said on Tuesday that students have been “desensitized to what the Confederate flag represents because they are using it to show school pride.” Connolly said they attach it to the back of their trucks and that he even had a student who had a Confederate flag “tattooed to his bicep.”

“By not changing the name at such a vulnerable time,” Connolly said, “we’re sending the wrong message to our students.”

Walpole resident Laura Fitzgibbons said, “It shouldn’t take very much hand wringing or soul searching to fully distance ourselves from Southern white supremacy in a Massachusetts town.”

2019 Walpole High grad Javon Jackson, who is black, said he wanted the name changed “on behalf of all those who may look like me and feel like me.” He told the committee that changing the name was only the start.

“There is more work to be done to make sure that every student feels safe and represented in the town of Walpole,” Jackson said.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the day of the school committee's vote. The vote was held Thursday, while the public comment meeting was held Tuesday.