George Murdoch was a celebrated athlete at Quartz Hill High School in the Antelope Valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He competed in football, basketball and track as a Rebel, a nickname the school celebrated with a cartoon Confederate soldier and the Confederate flag as its mascot.
“I hated it,” said Murdoch, who is biracial and is better known by his stage name "Tyrus" on Fox Nation's streaming talk show "Nuff Said With Tyrus." “Being called a Rebel didn’t make sense to us. We’re not in the South. We’re in California. We just didn’t get it.”
Now those in authority agree with him. Last week, officials announced that after 56 years the school is ditching the mascot, known as Johnny Rebel. Earlier this month Flintridge Prep, a small private school in La Cañada Flintridge, quietly dumped its Rebel mascot as well, renaming its sports team the Wolves.
Quartz Hill hasn’t chosen a new nickname, but the fact that it’s axing the old one comes at a time of rising racial tensions in the Antelope Valley. On June 10, the body of Robert Fuller, a 24-year-old Black man, was found hanging from a tree outside the Palmdale City Hall, about 12 miles from the high school. The cause of death is still under investigation.
The following night the Rebel logo was brought up at an Antelope Valley Union High School District board meeting, and an online petition supporting the name change drew more than 5,400 signatures, the latest move in a years-long campaign to pressure the school to change the mascot, which has undergone several revisions through the years.
Last Thursday, Principal Zach Mercier relented. A committee will be formed, he told teachers, to choose a new mascot for the school.
“That, to me, felt like a new day,” said English teacher Carmen Wisdom, who joined students in a four-mile Black Lives Matter march Saturday in scorching temperatures.
“Now I will finally be able to wear spirit gear,” she added. “I haven’t ever even uttered ‘Quartz Hill Rebels’ in the five years I’ve taught here.”
Not everyone was in a celebratory mood, however, since the mascot change has already provoked a backlash against those who campaigned for it.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said Joshua Collier, the former Black Student Union president who has been working to get Johnny Rebel removed for two years. “We got something changed, not only for myself but for more students of color. But the sour part is people are defending the mascot and are not open to change.”
Collier said his group’s email account has received numerous racist messages in recent days.
“People just want to immediately attack us,” he said.
Students and teachers say racial tensions are prevalent at the school, which once handed out Confederate flags at football games and assemblies. Three years ago, 80% of students surveyed said they wanted to keep the Rebel mascot, and last summer a video surfaced on social media of a white teenager, identified as a Quartz Hill student, getting painted in blackface as other students repeated racial slurs in the background.
Replacing the Rebel mascot, some students hope, will soften some of those views.
“The [mascot] change is a really good start to a better place at Quartz Hill,” said Mia Ogebe, a sophomore tennis player. “The environment we have right now is unacceptable. Obviously it won’t end all racism. But it will show that we do have a voice and we want to be heard.”
The Antelope Valley’s Black population has tripled since Murdoch went to school there, and with that has come repeated allegations of racist policies, including a U.S. Justice Department finding that officials worked to drive Black people out of public housing.
Five years ago, the Los Angeles County Housing Authority agreed to pay $2 million to victims of alleged discrimination, and some families who lost their housing assistance will have the chance to get it back.
At the same time, the Sheriff’s Department agreed to pay $700,000 and implement policies aimed at preventing racial bias. The Justice Department launched an investigation in 2011 into allegations that people of color — particularly Black people — living in federally subsidized housing in Lancaster and Palmdale were being harassed and discriminated against by sheriff’s deputies and county housing agency officials.
Then Fuller’s body was found this month.
“Historically the Palmdale-Lancaster area has had many complaints from Black residents who feel they’ve been the victim of racism and destruction. It’s been problematic for decades,” said Najee Ali, a community organizer and activist from South L.A. who is among those calling for an independent investigation into Fuller’s death.
Given that background, Murdoch, the Fox Nation talk show host and one of Quartz Hill’s best-known graduates, said the school’s association with Confederate symbolism was never appropriate and should have been changed long ago.
“I never understood supporting the losing team,” said Murdoch, who favors a bovine-related nickname given the fact the high school abuts a farm. “I never understood why there was so much emphasis on the most un-American thing you could possibility do, which is leave the United States.
“Most young African Americans, when we see that flag we don’t usually associate it with a good time," he said. "So I don’t think it has any place in high school. Now people are starting to take responsibility and you’re starting to see changes. There’s never a better time to start.”
Staff writer Hailey Branson and assistant sports editor Dan Loumena contributed to this report.