BETHEL — In the spring of 1992, Telstar Regional High School teacher Rodney Abbott faced a difficult task.

He had been asked by Ted Davis, then the Telstar principal, to explain to the student body why they needed to relinquish the use of the Confederate battle flag as a school symbol.

“I had received a letter from the NAACP,” Davis said. “They were upset that Telstar had the Rebel flag as a symbol, and they told us there was a possibility that they might picket the school.”

Davis believes that a basketball scrimmage at Telstar, during which black players on the opposing team reported feeling intimidated by the school’s display of the Confederate flag, may have prompted the letter from the NAACP.

Although it had been in use at Telstar for about 12 to 15 years, the flag had its fierce defenders, said Abbott, who knew that the students and faculty had no idea that their use of the Confederate flag could be regarded by others outside the Telstar community as intimidating or racist.

When Telstar opened its doors in the fall of 1968, the students chose the nickname Rebels for their sports teams, and a decade or so later, the Confederate flag made its first appearance at the school.

Davis said students had learned that the University of Mississippi sports teams were also known as the Rebels, and at the time, they were using the flag as a symbol of school spirit. The administration of the university has since distanced itself from all Confederate symbols and requests that fans not display them at athletic events.

The symbol gained popularity among Telstar students in the late 1970s, Davis said, and shortly after he took over as principal in 1983, the Student Council requested permission to buy and hang a big Rebel flag in the gym.

By the late 1980s, some staff members, including Abbott, the late Helen Berry and longtime history teacher Bill Morton, had begun to question the appropriateness of displaying the flag, recognizing that it could be considered offensive by some.

After the school was contacted by the NAACP, the administration and staff knew that the flag needed to come down, but they also realized that it wouldn’t be an easy sell.

Abbott was chosen to speak to the student body, Davis said, “because he had such a rapport with them.”

“Some Telstar alumni were upset when they did away with the flag,” he said. “And until the students who were freshmen that year graduated (in 1995), someone would occasionally try to slip a Confederate flag into a yearbook photo, or something like that. 

“It was met with both acceptance by some and anger by others,” Abbott said. “I remember that year and for a few more, someone would have the flag as a decoration on top of their mortarboard at graduation.”

In the wake of last month’s murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., photos of accused shooter and white supremacist Dylann Roof displaying the Confederate flag have prompted renewed conversations about the symbolism of the flag, and calls to remove it from public buildings and grounds.

Last week, Abbott’s former student Tim Chapman posted a copy of the speech Abbott gave to the student body on April 3, 1992, on his Facebook page.

Chapman wrote, “Following recent events, I thought back to many years ago, when Telstar High School used the Confederate flag as our school flag. Most of us had absolutely no clue what it really stood for.”

A 1991 Telstar graduate, Chapman said he had been invited by Abbott to return to hear his address and was honored to be there.

“We come to associate very strong emotions with symbols,” Abbott told the student body in 1992. “Therefore, symbols are one of the most difficult things to discuss calmly.”

However, he said, he believed that a symbol, in order to have real meaning, should represent “who we are, not who someone else is. No one would suggest using a swastika, for example, to represent the U.S.”

During the Civil War, Abbott said, “(the Confederate flag) represented an effort to make the United States into the Divided States. It stood for forces trying to maintain slavery. It became a symbol of defeat.”

He reminded students of the sacrifices made by Maine soldiers during the Civil War, including those of the 1st Maine Regiment, which lost more than two-thirds of its numbers at the Battle of Petersburg (Va.).

“Can you imagine the reaction of these people who sacrificed and, in some cases, died to save the Union if they could somehow be here with us today and find out that the flag that represents their local public school is the flag of disunion?” Abbott asked.

And although the students at Telstar might regard the Confederate flag as an innocuous symbol, “It terribly offends black Americans,” he said.

“It was the flag of slavery,” he explained. “For more than a hundred years, it has fluttered in the breezes at Ku Klux Klan rallies. It has shared the scene with burning crosses and white robes. It has stood vigilant at the scene of thousands of beatings, whippings, mutilations, castrations and hangings.”

Abbott made it clear to the students that he was not accusing them of racism.

But, he said, “Does the fact that we live in a remote corner of the U.S. excuse us from being part of the larger world? I don’t think so. Does the fact that we are mostly white with Anglo-Saxon backgrounds excuse us from being considerate of other people’s history and suffering? I don’t think so. 

“We must take a good look at who we are, what our symbols stand for, and what we want to be. I challenge you to see yourselves as part of the larger world and to be mature enough to consider how we can unintentionally offend people who have a right to be offended.”

Despite his popularity among the students, Abbott said his message didn’t go over well with all of them.

“I remember a couple students in the audience were upset enough to stand and make statements of opposition to what was being done,” he said. “It was, in their minds, their symbol.

“That was the difficult part: To help them understand that what was dear to them at the local level meant something else altogether in the larger world.”

Note: The full text of Rodney Abbott’s April 3, 1992, speech to the Telstar student body is available on the Bethel Citizen website, bethelcitizen.com


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