T.F. South studies dropping nickname
D215 Board, 70% of students surveyed support the change
A majority of District 215 Board members said they support changing Thornton Fractional South High School’s nickname after a survey found 70% of current students favor ditching the Rebels moniker, which was chosen in the 1950s for its association with the Confederacy.
The board has yet to formally announce or approve the nickname’s retirement, but agreed Wednesday at its committee of the whole meeting to “press ahead with a plan for changing the name” on the strength of the survey results.
“I’ll support that for sure,” said board President Michael Bolz, who recommended placing a motion on the board’s next meeting agenda to “make if official.”
Four other board members then followed with statements affirming their support for changing the school’s nickname, which students chose in 1958 after the Thornton Fractional district was divided into North and South high
The South students picked Rebels, a name used for Confederate soldiers and their supporters during the Civil War, because they saw themselves as breaking away or “seceding” from what became known as Thornton Fractional North, district officials have said.
T.F. South subsequently adopted a Confederate battle flag as its banner and a Southern soldier as its mascot to extend the analogy.
To the then entirely white student body, the choices seemed “clever and historical,” according to an archived Chicago Tribune article, but as more Black families moved into the district the Confederate relics started to attract scrutiny as symbols of slavery and oppression.
The flag, which waved atop the school until 1993, was removed first, followed some time later by the Ritchie Rebel mascot.
The nickname has been the “glaring holdout,” Bolz said last month.
While the appropriateness of retaining the Rebels nickname at a school where 62.7% of students are Black has been raised from time to time over the years, it wasn’t until the police killing of George Floyd in late May and the national discussion about race that followed that District 215 sought seriously to reckon with its own racial legacy.
“It’s come up every couple years and there never seems to be enough support to just hands down remove it,” Bolz said.
Until June, when the board voted to disseminate an electronic survey asking students about retiring the Rebels nickname, a discussion of changing the name had never before made it onto a meeting agenda, he said.
Sheryl Black, a former District 215 board member who has criticized its handling of racial equity issues, said a student had brought her concerns about the nickname to the board in 2018 and again in 2019, but was ignored.
“We never discussed it as a board and when I tried to bring it up for discussion I was told it wasn’t the right time,” said Black, who was the only African American board member during much of her two-term tenure. “Unfortunately, many times people know it’s a problem, but sometimes it’s easier to ignore it than to address it, and I think that was the case here.”
Mia Pettigrew, a 2019 T.F. South graduate who sent the board emails and wrote an essay calling for changing the Rebels nickname when she was a student, spoke last month at a prayer vigil for racial equity held outside Thornton Fractional’s administrative center.
“I’m aware that it’s absurd to ask the school to apologize for things that they allowed in the past,” she said at the July 11 gathering. “However, T-F South should respect their students enough to change the name to something more racially sensitive.”
Black said she was excited, but not surprised that a majority of students supported retiring the Rebels nickname, although she questioned why it was necessary to put the question to students in the first place.
“I think the board could just have made a decision,” she said, echoing a sentiment that other Black parents and community members have shared. “Especially since they’re now saying they’re focusing on a culture of equity, it would make more sense to make that determination as a board. We know this is offensive and we’re trying to address things that are offensive and racially insensitive, so as a board we’re making this decision.”
Vice President LeAnn Revis addressed those criticisms Wednesday night after throwing her support behind the name change.
“As far as I was concerned, that was an equity informed decision because it was letting the students take ownership, not having the board arbitrarily and unilaterally make this decision for them,” she said. “I wanted to be sure it was a student driven decision. Giving them ownership and amplifying their voices.”
It’s not clear how many of T.F. South’s 1,800 students responded to the nickname survey, but roughly 70% of respondents were supportive of changing the moniker, board members said.
The district hasn’t released any other information about the survey or its plans for selecting a new nickname, but board members have said the name change process would be student driven and is likely to last for the better part of a year.
A district spokeswoman said officials were too busy to respond to questions about the student survey and the district’s next steps.