The important thing to remember, Lou Bozigian says, is that nobody meant any harm.
The fact that Quartz Hill High School calls its teams the Rebels, the fact that Johnny Reb is their mascot and the fact that the Confederate flag appears on the school emblem were never intended to suggest sympathy for the slave owners who ruled the Old South. But if it looks that way--well, yes, Bozigian agrees, that's a problem.
No, these particular Rebels were inspired by history that is more recent and more local--by the activists from the west end of the Antelope Valley who fought so hard to get Quartz Hill High built 31 years ago. Once they picked the nickname, Bozigian says, the Dixie theme evolved in an innocuous, innocent way.
Think of Rebels and what image comes to mind? James Dean?
Thirty-one years ago, a James Dean theme would have offended parents more than the Confederacy shtick. But now that the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and about 1,000 Quartz Hill students have raised objections to the Confederate imagery--"symbols of hate," one NAACP official describes them--the Antelope Valley is left to explain itself.
Lou Bozigian is in as good a position as anyone to do the explaining. He left Los Angeles in 1954--"it was getting too crowded"--and moved to the high desert to farm alfalfa, onions and beans. Active in civic affairs, he served on the school board from 1969 to 1977 and was Lancaster's mayor in 1983-84. Now 68, he owns Mid Valley Real Estate with his brother Ralph.
Bozigian wasn't one of the original Quartz Hill rebels, but he might have been considered a sympathizer. The way he and Quartz Hill High School Principal Susan Custer tell the story, this was a battle not between the North and South, but between the West and East. And this time, the rebels won, led by the late Neil Nicholson.
These days, many people wonder why Quartz Hill High's football stadium is named after a guy named Nicholson. But were it not for him, Custer says, there may not have been a Quartz Hill High, or at least not one at Avenue L and 60th Street West. Not only did Nicholson lead the grass-roots effort to build the first high school in the west Antelope Valley, he also led parents in waging a legal challenge to the school district's efforts to relocate the school after bonds were approved. The court sided with Nicholson's group, ensuring that the school would better serve the west side.
It was during these battles with the school district, Custer says, that west-siders like Nicholson earned a reputation for rebellion. Once the school was built, the moniker seemed like a natural. "The Rebel spirit" was invoked time and again as Quartz Hill residents, with Bozigian as a key ally, persuaded the school board to improve the school.
"If you look to the dictionary for a definition of rebel," Custer reminded the school board recently, "you find a great deal of verbiage, but the terms maverick , renegade and the adjective brave all appear and seem appropriate."
The school's first mascot was not the generic Johnny Reb, but the very specific and rather dubious Jubilation T. Cornpone.
Custer explained that the mythical Mr. Cornpone was a character from Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" comic strip. Our crack library staff, however, suggests this isn't quite correct. Actually, Mr. Cornpone was a historical figure alluded to in the 1956 musical "Li'l Abner."
Johnny Mercer's lyrics describe him further:
When we fought the Yankees and annihilation was near,
Who was there to lead the charge that took us safe to the rear,
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone, old "Toot-Your-Own-Horn" Pone--
Jubilation T. Cornpone, a man who knew no fear . . .
When we almost had 'em but the issue still was in doubt,
Who suggested the retreat that turned it into a rout?
Jubilation T. Cornpone, old "Tattered And Torn" Pone--
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he kept us hidin' out . . .
With our ammunition gone, and faced with utter defeat,
Who was it that burned the crops and left us nothing' to eat? . . .
And so on.
For some reason, the school dropped Mr. Cornpone as its mascot.
No, the school principal agrees, the Confederate theme came about more by accident than by grand plan. Custer, who has been at the school six years, the last three as principal, said her Rebel research led her to chat with Joe Giesler, the school's first band director. Giesler, she said, refused to teach the band to play "Dixie" because the faculty did not want the mascot to be identified with the Confederacy. "And to this day, you do not hear the band play 'Dixie.' "
But the Confederate flag crept into school emblems, and thus onto school stationery. During the '70s, the mascot evolved into a Confederate cavalry soldier. Five years ago, Custer's predecessor, Ray Monti, sought to eliminate the flag from campus symbols. Since February, the school has discarded its old letterhead, removed the sword from the Johnny Reb caricature on a gym wall and sought estimates to replace the image on the school's marquee.
The NAACP says it does not object to the Rebels nickname, but only the Confederate imagery. In recent weeks, alleged hate crimes against blacks in the Antelope Valley have heightened the sensitivity among civic leaders. Bozigian, for one, suggests that the media have exaggerated racial hostilities in the high desert. But if people "down below" perceive the Antelope Valley as an intolerant place, he adds, "we have to work harder to improve that image."
Custer says she expects the school board to approve plans to alter the mascot to reflect a more popular rebel.
"We may simply change the hat from a rebel soldier from the Civil War to one from the Revolutionary War," she says. "That would be simple."
Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.