One October day in 1990, students at Southwest High School in Fort Worth gathered together for a pep rally. Cheerleaders were performing on stage to inspire school spirit, which was no doubt lacking after a couple tense months. Then, amid the chants and cheers, someone rolled a Confederate flag down the auditorium’s projector screen, and all hell broke loose.
For years, students and parents at Southwest High had sparred over the school’s continued use of the Rebel mascot — an homage to the Civil War-era South. But where some insisted it was a nod to their history, others saw it as a symbol of hate.
Russell Sebastian was a senior at the time. He remembers watching as the Confederate flag unfurled, causing an “immediate uproar.” Sebastian believes the flag was meant to inspire camaraderie. Instead, it did just the opposite, driving the packed auditorium to chaos.
“There were people that were climbing over seats, pushing people,” Sebastian recalled. “If there were any racial tensions before, it just magnified it.”
Today, some North Texas school districts are shedding their own Confederate ties. In March, Dallas ISD trustees voted to rebrand three of the district’s schools named after Confederate soldiers. Around the country, Confederate monuments have come down in recent years, mascots have been dropped and parks and streets have been renamed.
In many ways, Southwest High School was ahead of its time, but some say those changes were already well past due.
Unrest had been gestating since 1986, when the Confederate flag was banned from the school as racist, according to the Fort Worth station KXAS. Four years later, though, some students weren’t ready to give it up, arriving at class in Confederate flag garb.
These days, Sebastian is an IT director and runs an escape room in Grapevine with his wife, Amber, another Southwest alumnus. In 1990, though, he served as editor of the school paper, The Rebelation.
On the day of the pep rally, with hundreds of kids “running amok” around campus, Sebastian’s journalistic instincts kicked in. He went outside to survey the scene, one that’s stuck with him to this day.
After the flag dropped, people flooded from the auditorium into the streets, Sebastian said. Some kids fled the school altogether. Others stuck around to fight, calling each other names as brawls broke out.
Sebastian remembers the scene as “pretty scary.” Mob rule had hit Southwest High, and administrators, helpless to stop it, sent students home for the day.
Before the pep rally erupted in anger, Sebastian had been part of a steering committee to come up with another, less controversial mascot. Students knew that change was coming, and tensions had already been simmering under the surface. “It was a pot that was about to boil,” Sebastian said.
Days after the fracas, Sebastian spoke to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“It’s time to change [the mascot],” Sebastian told the outlet at the time. “It’s hurt way too many people — way too many people. I’ve seen too many of my friends shed tears over this.”
Shifting demographics likely helped to inspire Southwest High to make such a move, said historian and Collin College professor Michael Phillips. Plus, local African American activists and leaders had played an enormous role in changing the broader consciousness.
Southwest High was ahead of the curve, Phillips said. The movement to take down Confederate monuments nationwide really only hit its stride after the mid-2010s, following a rise in right-wing violence.
Phillips said history is often taught badly in high schools and the curriculum frequently downplays the horrors of the Civil War. For instance, many kids learn that the war was more about “states’ rights” than it was about the “right” to own slaves.
Following the Civil War, the United Daughters of the Confederacy spearheaded an effort to whitewash history, Phillips added. In many ways, it worked: Rather than ringing traitorous, people began associating the word “rebel” with independence and bravery.
Phillips fears the effort to remove Confederate vestiges could get cut short by certain legislation. Texas lawmakers this session passed a bill that many educators say would make it more difficult to teach about racism.
“We still have these traces of a racist past all over,” Phillips said. “That’s why we have to carry on this battle to resist the effort to return us to the status quo ante, to return us to the whitewashed propaganda.”
Writer and editor Betsy Friauf, Phillips’ wife, was a senior at Southwest High School in the fall of 1973. Despite a Supreme Court ruling to integrate schools nearly 20 years prior, she said 1973 was the first year that African American students were bused to her school.
Some of Friauf’s classmates had similarly petitioned Southwest High to nix its Confederate symbols when she was a student there. And looking back, Friauf cringes at some of the more “egregious” displays of school spirit. The school band used to play “Dixie” at football games, for instance.
Even today, Friauf said many of her old classmates call themselves “Rebels,” and at her 20-year reunion, someone displayed a huge Confederate flag in the banquet room. After that, Friauf stopped attending those events.
So when the school changed its mascot more than 15 years after she graduated, Friauf remembers thinking: “What took them so long?”
“I’m glad that schools are leaving behind these horrible, racist symbols of sedition — homages to traitors,” Friauf said. “That’s a hopeful sign.”
Looking back, Sebastian is amazed that the Southwest High School teenagers had to face such an adult issue. At the same time that heated debates were erupting on campus, students had other important things to focus on, like graduating.
Eventually, the steering committee landed on another symbol that mirrored the Rebels’ spirit, but without the same horrid history: the Raiders. At one point, though, they'd even considered the more lighthearted mascot of the Squids, Sebastian said with a laugh.
Regardless, he added, the decision was the right one.
“Here we are today, still the Southwest Raiders, and I think that’s a good thing,” Sebastian said. “Because certainly, if we weren’t addressing it back then, we would probably be addressing it today.”
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.