If you take a drive through south Bakersfield, you'll come across an area quite different than the rest.

South High School, known for its Rebel mascot, a Confederate image, is surrounded by streets named after Confederate figures, battles and warships — Fambrough, Merrimac, Sumter, Monitor and Shenandoah. One block away, you'll come across Plantation Avenue and Plantation Elementary School. 

As a Black student at South High in the 1980s, Marcus Hicks felt it was always weird to have so much symbolism from a time period that only lasted four years.

"Everything hinted toward the Confederacy ... especially the mascots, Jody and Johnny Rebel," Hicks explained. A male student would dress up in a Confederate soldier's uniform, while a female student was dressed in a Southern belle-type gown.

"Even weirder is that our senior year, Johnny Rebel was a Mexican-American student, and Jody was Black. It was crazy to put them in that," Hicks added.

The school's mascot and other imagery have gone through several changes ever since South High School opened in 1957, but it seems like a changing of the guard might happen soon. Along with a petition urging the Kern High School District to change the mascot, a committee is currently in the early stages of being formed with the intent to do just that, according to Principal Connie Grumling.

REBEL HISTORY

The Rebel mascot and pride associated with South High School today looks much different than decades past.

In the 1950s and 1960s, imagery from the Confederacy was easy to spot. A "Rebel flag" was part of the mascot, and hung from horns during marching band performances. Football games featured "Dixie," a popular Southern song, and audiences celebrating touchdowns would wave the Confederate flag. 

The Rebel mascot donned a gray and blue Confederate soldier's uniform — which remain the school colors today.

Ethel Dixon, a school nurse during the late 1960s and the first adviser of the Black Student Union for Progress, said it was hard seeing that imagery everywhere. But, having been born in 1944 and living with racism, she thought it was just a way of life.

"You just make your own comfort zone and live with it," Dixon said. "Even though it was offensive, you accepted things you couldn't change."

But Black students had enough. Around the late 1960s, a riot broke out, Dixon explained. Black students, fed up with seeing a Confederate flag waved around and being left out, let their actions show how they felt.

Dixon recalled several Black students telling her they didn't care if they got expelled for starting the fights. "I’m not living like this anymore," she recalled them saying.

The principal at the time, Don Murfin, listened and the flag was removed. Bill Miller, an English teacher for 37 years, said there were a lot of hard feelings from alumni when the flag was dropped, but he "knew this needed to happen."

In the following decades, more symbolism was removed, such as losing Johnny and Jody Rebel and the Confederate uniforms, said Grumling, also an alumna of the school.

In the early ’90s the school stopped using the Rebel man as its mascot. There was a schoolwide competition, and the shield that's now sometimes used as South's logo was chosen.

"A James Dean type of Rebel was considered, but the school could not visualize that mascot either," Grumling said. "Over time, the student body became disenchanted with being 'the Shields,'" so the mascot was redrawn with stubble and a baseball cap. He was made to look like a rebel, but not one from 1861 to 1865.

When looking at the mascot today, most wouldn't know he was a Confederate Rebel. But for a lot of alumni, it's something they can't forget.

LOOKING BACK

It's taken years for Nicholas Belardes, a 1986 graduate, to process his feelings and understand his identity after saying he was "ideologically sedated" into believing a certain narrative while at South.

In a Boom California essay, Belardes recalled the Confederate imagery that surrounded him — Rebels, the blue and gray colors, the Merrimac yearbook, Johnny and Jody yell leaders in military-style gray uniforms and Confederate hats — and admitted being so caught up in school spirit he didn't realize what it all stood for.

"I never had a course on the Civil War or the American South while at South High," he explained in an email. "That means I was never taught the context of what any of those school and street names symbolized: forced labor, preservation of slavery, the willingness to accept an economic system comprised of an enslaved labor force, where untold millions died violently, murdered and raped in jungles, slave factories, and on ships, prior to even reaching American shores. Let alone, what slave life on plantations entailed."

There was shame that set in long after seeing students of color dressed in Southern military garb, which he himself wore. But at that time, it all seemed "righteous and good."

Doug Walters, a 1981 graduate, shared a similar experience. He was looking for a way to get more involved in school during his senior year, and after losing the student body president election, was offered the role of Johnny Rebel.

Mostly a presence during football games, Walters recalled being dressed in the uniform and hat with a plastic sword. The role of Johnny Rebel was filled by a Black student the following year.

At that time, he didn't think much about the look, mainly because there was little discussion about it. To him, a Rebel was about "questioning authority, questioning what others may have thought was appropriate (and not) accepting everything you see and hear," not the Confederacy.

Looking back on the mascot, "It’s certainly something that doesn’t sit well as an alum," Walters said.

Most high school alumni, whatever their mascot may be, are attached to it and the memories associated with being a student. Hicks, who described seeing Confederate imagery around him as "demoralizing," said his classmates didn't really seem to care much about the history behind the Rebel, or how it may have impacted peers.

"If we were asked our senior year should it change, I’m quite sure the majority would say no," Hicks said. "There’s attachment, pride, school spirit. It was important to them."

"I look back on my time attending high school and I'm ashamed of my thoughts on it then. I definitely noticed it and thought about it, but back then, I didn't think 'Wow, this is extremely racist' the way I realize today," said 1990 graduate Vanessa Fox. "Instead, I thought that it was weird and even ironic that a school where white people were a minority was named after the Confederacy and that Johnny Rebel was a Black student."

Fox added that students who attend schools with these names aren't getting the message that "the Confederacy fought to continue to enslave other humans and went to war with our country and killed Americans." Instead, "they are getting the message that the Confederacy is something to be honored and revered and be proud of."

A NEW FUTURE

Grumling was a Rebelette, the dance and color guard team, and part of the Associated Student Body in the late 1970s. She enjoyed her time at South. 

By that point, she felt as though people had learned from mistakes of the past and embraced inclusivity and progress.

Looking back on it, "I should have understood it more," she said.

South High has come far with its student population. In 2019, about 83 percent of students were Hispanic, 8 percent were African-American and 4 percent were white, according to California Dashboard data. The school also uses Rebel United and Rebels Do It RIGHT (Respect, Integrity, Goals, Heart, Tradition) as its mantras.

"We are really inclusive here," the principal said. "You can be who you are here and it’s OK."

Which is why Grumling feels like it's time to move past the Rebel name. She initially tried pursuing the effort around 2014 and 2015 and received pushback from some stakeholders and alumni. A school boundary change was also taking place, so the timing just wasn't right. 

It's something Grumling still feels remorseful about.

"I’ve wanted to do it and I didn’t," she said. "I know it needs to happen."

Others have also tried to take on the effort, like Garrison Moratto last year, saying by having students go to a school that values respect and integrity, but still has the Rebel mascot in place, creates a "weird dichotomy."

Some are indifferent on a new mascot. Recent graduate Sebastian Cardenas said today's Rebel man never really affected him.

"When I went to school there, it had been so detached from that (Confederate) imagery that it wasn’t particularly offensive to myself at the time," Cardenas said. He added it might be because of his race — he's Hispanic — that he's not offended. "I think at this point someone would have to tell you it did have that root. ... It’s a seemingly normal mascot now."

Though Dixon saw riots firsthand over Confederate imagery, changing the mascot isn't a battle she believes is important today. Instead, she's more focused on the things she can change in her own life.

She might face pushback again, but Grumling is determined to see the change through. She's in the early process of forming a committee to discuss and suggest a new mascot.

KHSD spokeswoman Erin Briscoe said, “We are looking forward to receiving the information that Principal Grumling and the committee will provide, and the district and the board will evaluate the next steps moving forward."

Belardes agrees it's time to shed not just the Rebel mascot, but any and all Confederate symbols.

"(A new generation of South High School students) have to not only wake up to the idea that Confederate symbols are polluting the landscape of Bakersfield, they have to be the generation who decides once and for all to put a stop to this," he said in an email. "While they’re at it, they need to embrace their younger brothers and sisters at Plantation Elementary, and create change for them too, and then, because this is a monumental fight, bigger than any high school in California infected with this kind of Confederate imagery, they have to rally to change the street names too."

There are no plans at this time to change the name of Plantation Elementary School, said Greenfield Union School District Superintendent Ramon Hendrix. However, there has been some discussion within the district about the name of the school.

Alumni haven't dwelled too much on what they would like to see represent South High School if a new mascot is selected, but Hicks said he hopes "it is something that looks to the future and not the past."

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.