As the nation worked to desegregate its schools and the civil-rights movement took hold in the South, the University of Texas at Arlington stood strong behind the Confederate flag.
The school, known then as Arlington State College, had changed its mascot from the Blue Riders to Rebels in the 1950s to unify its students and proudly flew the Confederate battle flag on its campus. Students chose a Johnny Rebel and Miss Dixie Belle for homecoming. Symbols of the Old South appeared across the campus.
“Dixie became the unofficial fight song,” said Gerald Saxon, a history professor at the school. “The whole issue of the Confederacy was ingrained in the school.”
The school integrated in 1962, the flag came down in 1968, and in 1971 the UT System’s board of regents ordered that the Johnny Rebel mascot must go.
More than 40 years later, as opposition grows to the continued use of the flag — namely at the South Carolina Capitol — and the display of Confederate memorials, UT Arlington remains free of its connection to the Old South.
“We are not having them on this campus,” Saxon said of the national debate about whether it’s appropriate to embrace the Confederacy. “They are having them in South Carolina, [but] not here.”
The debate was spurred by the recent massacre of nine black worshippers in a Charleston, S.C., church. The suspect is a young man who was openly racist and had photos taken of him holding the Confederate flag.
UT Arlington is not alone in its divorce with Dixie.
More than 20 years after UTA took down its flag, two Tarrant County high schools — Richland in North Richland Hills and Southwest in Fort Worth — began to distance themselves from the Old South.
‘Not been an issue’
Symbols of the Confederacy are still easy to find in Texas, however.
Schools, buildings and forts across the state carry names of Civil War leaders — Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Leonidas Polk, John Bell Hood — and the flag is everywhere, though it is no longer being sold in stores such as Wal-Mart and Target in light of the recent controversy.
In Tarrant County, the flag is still waved at parades, sporting events and Civil War re-enactments.
The flag was a battle flag used by the Confederacy’s main military force, which was commended by various leaders, including Gen. Robert E. Lee, said Cindy Harriman, executive director of the Texas Civil War Museum in Fort Worth.
“The flag that is in the controversy right now is the Army of Northern Virginia battle flag,” Harriman said.
The Confederate flag known as the Stars and Bars, which has a circle of white stars on a blue background with three horizontal red and white stripes, is flown by Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington.
The battle flag is not flown at Six Flags, and a section of the park that was once themed “The Confederacy” and featured Civil War re-enactments was renamed in the mid-1990s to “The Old South.”
“All Confederate battle flags were removed,” park spokeswoman said Sharon Parker in an email. “The park continues to fly the Confederate States of America flag but does not fly or sell any variation of the Confederate battle flag.”
The battle flag has long been associated with NASCAR races, but the organization recently issued a statement in support of the removal of the flag from the South Carolina Capitol.
When NASCAR races are held at Texas Motor Speedway in north Fort Worth, battle flags hang high above campsites and are displayed on clothing and gimme caps.
Neither NASCAR nor the speedway said plans are in place to ban fans from having such flags on site.
“There is no official policy, given the fact that it has not been a issue at our facility,” speedway officials said in a statement. “Should an instance arise that needs to be addressed, we will do so appropriately.”
The flag also pops up in local parades, include the Fort Worth Stock Show’s All Western Parade and Arlington’s annual July Fourth parade.
Arlington parade organizers, who are holding the 50th edition of the parade Saturday, said that they have been in contact with a Sons of Confederate Veterans group that is participating and that no battle flags will be on display.
‘Don’t see it as a racial symbol’
The flag’s place in history has long fueled debates — among politicians, family and friends.
Some say Confederate family artifacts, including uniforms, flags and letters, are important reminders of their heritage and the South’s fight in the name of states’ rights.
“They don’t see it as a racial symbol,” said Harriman, whose great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy. “We don’t want Washington, D.C., to become a dictatorship and tell everybody what to do.”
But many African-Americans say they see symbols of hate, especially in the battle flag, which was embraced by the Klu Klux Clan and Dylann Roof, who is accused in the Charleston shootings.
“That flag came to be a symbol for racism, oppression and resistance for the rights of black people,” said Marvin Dulaney, chairman of the UT Arlington history department.
The flag was used to symbolize resistance to integration and civil rights, Dulaney said.
“We need to take down the Confederate flag all over the country,” Dulaney said.
Mike Patterson, an officer with the Col. E.W. Taylor Camp No. 1777 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has strong feelings about the battle flag, emphasizing that they are his opinions, not those of his organization.
“The real tragedy involving the Confederate flag took place decades ago when mindless hate groups like the KKK, skinheads and others took the flag and tried to make it an emblem of their own,” Patterson, a retired teacher from the Birdville school district who lives in Colleyville, said in an email. “I wish they’d chosen the skull-and-crossbones pirate flag or any one of many others at their disposal and turned it into a symbol of their hate, but they didn’t.”
Michael Landis, a history professor at Tarelton State Univesity in Stephenville, teaches a course called “memory of the Civil War.”
After the war, slavery was eliminated as a top war issue, and myths about happy slaves emerged, Landis said. These ideas were typified in the book and movie Gone with the Wind, he said.
Landis said this myth helped Southerners cleanse an ugly part of their history.
“Today, these myths die hard,” he said.
‘From Rebels to Raiders’
Even with its controversial history, connections to the Confederacy were easily found in Texas schools.
At Richland High, the flag had been a symbol of school spirit and pride from the 1960s until 1993, when students spearheaded an effort to adopt a new banner. Some students said they felt uncomfortable waving the flags at football games, pep rallies and other sporting events. Members of the pep squad approached the principal to make a change.
“Our kids would go to different places and they were using the Rebel flag,” said Rick, a former student adviser at Richland High who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. “There were increasing problems with other schools. … To many people it was a really offensive symbol.”
Sandy Smith, 40, graduated from Richland High in 1993. She said students were mostly divided among those who wanted to keep Johnny Reb and the Confederate flag and those who didn’t support the Civil War references.
Some, like her, were neutral.
“It wasn’t on our radar,” Smith said. “It should have been. I think now kids are a lot more savvy, as opposed to in the 1990s when there was a lot of work that remained to be done.”
Smith said the flag controversy from years gone by still sparks debate among alumni — especially on Facebook.
“When I show people today an old yearbook, the whole inside is emblazoned with the flag,” Smith said. “People are really shocked that that existed in a yearbook in the 1990s. Old traditions die hard.”
While the use of the flag was discontinued, Richland’s mascot continues to be a Rebel but is described as looking like a cowboy.
Fort Worth’s Southwest High School stopped being the Rebels in the early 1990s, too, after black students protested the use of the Confederate battle flag.
People wondered why the district would choose such as mascot for a school, said former Principal Quince Fulton, who oversaw the student-led change of the mascot.
“I think probably a lot more teachers were disgruntled than the kiddos,” said Fulton, who retired in 1992.
Trustee T.A. Sims, who was on the school board at the time, said it was an easy decision to support the name change.
“We had a discussion, and the next thing that happened was they went from Rebels to Raiders,” Sims said.
“For me, it brings back the past,” he said. “The flag was a symbol of racism.”
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675