There’s been a lot of news recently about high schools looking to change their names that honor Confederates.
Gov. Ralph Northam said last month in a letter to state school boards that he urged them to evaluate Virginia public schools with names and mascots “that memorialize Confederate leaders or sympathizers.”
Last month, Fairfax County responded when it renamed Robert E. Lee High – named after the confederate soldier – to John R. Lewis High, after the civil rights icon who died last month.
There has also been talk about changing names that use Native Americans as mascots.
This is all interesting news for those who attended the old John Yeates High in Suffolk.
Fifty years ago, several black football players – with the help of their teammates and coaches – fought to change its nickname from the Rebels to Chargers. This was during a time when integration was just beginning, and racial tension was high.
That didn’t stop the football players and coaches at John Yeates.
It all started when the black players voiced their objection to having to run onto the field under a large rebel flag and “Dixie” was the school’s fight song. For them the confederate flag represented racism and the song had roots in blackface minstrelsy.
Matthew Towns was just 16 years old when he and other black players voiced their dismay to the school’s nickname. The school had about 900 students and less than 80 were Black.
“We got to talking about the name,” said Towns, who now lives North Myrtle Beach S.C. “We would go to games and they had rebel flags and rebel symbols out there. We just felt it was time for a change.”
So, they got together with the football coaches, who suggested they talk to principal William Whitley about their concern.
Teammate Kevin Alston remembers it well.
“It was the spring of 1969, several Black football players called for a team meeting,” said Alston, who is white. “They said they were coming to us to ask for help to change the culture.”
Alston described himself as a “very school spirited” student. As a sophomore, he was elected vice president of the Pep Club and was president elect for his junior year. He said he remembers waving the rebel flag in a show of school spirit. He also was apathetic and didn’t realize how the flag and symbols affected his teammates.
“When Matthew and the African American members of the team told us how it made them feel,” he said, “I was devastated and wanted to do whatever I could to help them.”
Alston said it never occurred to him that the rebel flag and Dixie music could be offensive until Towns and his black teammates painted a different scenario that he could understand.
“They said, ‘How would you like if we were the John Yeates Black Panthers and you ran underneath a black flag with your fist raised.’” he said. “They asked us how would we like that? I thought, ‘I’m not so sure I would.’ So, I really understood it then. They asked if I would go around and speak to all of the English classes to tell them why the name should be changed, which I did.”
Towns and several of his classmates, including Bobby Smith, went around getting support to have the name changed. He said the fact that their football coaches were supportive helped. Head coach Gail Parker and assistant coaches Jerry Carter and Bill Cary, were instrumental in getting the team to rally behind the change.
“They got behind it and told the team that we’re a unit and said, ‘If the Black guys on the team think we ought to change the name, then we’ll change the team,” explained Towns. “This is back in 1969. Our whole team became one unit . . . There was no color on our team. And our football team played a vital role in how things turned out.”
Carter, also a guidance counselor at the school, remembers when Towns approached him about changing the name. He admitted the he wasn’t “comfortable” with the nickname either. He said at the time, Suffolk had some pretty conservative voices and some traditional voices.
He said they went to the student council and said they wanted a vote for the name. Carter said he felt it was important to change the name because it was important to his players.
“I was really close to a lot of the minority kids. I knew how much they were impacted with this whole situation,” said Carter, who later coached at Deep Creek High. “John Yeates was still majority white, but I knew it was wrong and it was a problem that wasn’t going to go away.”
Carter said he knew they were ahead of their time in terms of race relations. He was raised to not be prejudice of people because of the color of their skin.
“In my family, discrimination of any kind was never allowed,” he said. “Making derogatory comments or anything like that just wasn’t used. My mother wouldn’t tolerate it.”
When he followed those views, he said some thought he was a “Civil Right instigator” but he didn’t care because he knew it was important to take a stand.
“I think that was the first real effort to shed the old Jim Crow type of attitude,” he said. “It was the first stage of school integration and you know you had to kind of take a stand. You’re either were on the side of the right way or you’re on the side of the wrong way. Thanks to Mom, I think I was on the right side.”
Alston remembers there being some backlash from those who resisted change and held onto their white supremacist views. That didn’t stop them continuing to fight.
“If you think about it, for that period of time, for that progressive of thoughts, I would have to say that was pretty much before its time,” said Alston, who is the former chief of operations for Suffolk Public Schools. “The principal was pretty good about it, too, because he could have just said no to begin with.”
What impressed Alston about Towns was he wasn’t demanding or forceful about wanting to change the name.
“He said in his presentation that if it’s not changed, ‘We will accept it,‘” Alston said. “But he said. ‘If you do change it, we would appreciate it.’”
Teammate David Alwood said getting the football team behind it really helped but it also opened their eyes to race relations.
“It taught me to try to look at different sides of the same issue,” said Alwood, who is white, and later graduated from John F. Kennedy, which was predominately black. “I got thrown into it and saw what the real world was like . . . You have to understand the other side.”
Towns and the other black players were appreciative to their teammates and coaches for helping to get the name changed. His leadership didn’t stop in high school. When he went to Washington & Lee University, he again challenged administration to change its use of the rebel flag and Dixie music. The school had just 15 black students out of 1,650.
“We had already done it once, so I said let’s try it,” said Towns, who worked for United Community Bank as a senior vice president in credit administration. “We were not being forceful about it. We went at it the right way, peacefully.”
The changing of the name from Rebel to Chargers also brought unity to the team. For a football that had never had a winning season, the Chargers went 5-5 that season and then 10-0 the following year, including a district and region title. And in 1971, they were 10-0 but got beat in the Class AA state title game.
John Yeates High closed in 1990 but all of the men who were instrumental in the name change take pride in what they were able to achieve.
“It was progressive thinking for back then. It’s what should have been done,” said Alston. “I realized these guys are just like me. They’re no different.”
Towns believes change occurred because of their ability to show the majority why there needed to be change.
“We didn’t get any resistance because they understood the why,” he said. “They were willing to first considerate it, then second to understand it, and third to make the change.”
Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449, email@example.com
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