By Charlie Mitchell
Perception is reality.
When reality tries to argue against perception, reality loses.
Anything having an Old South theme is twinged with the oppression of black people.
The New South wants a new template. It doesn’t want to dwell on the days when second-class citizenship was enforced by law.
That means Colonel Reb has got to go.
Says students of the University of Mississippi, by vote. And it’s only fair, given that it was the students of yesteryear who created the mascot in the first place.
Still, it’s a heck of a story.
The first University of Mississippi students, all male, enrolled on the Oxford campus in 1848. In the fall of 1861, only four students showed up for class. The rest had formed what became known as the University Greys, a rifle unit assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia.
When the Civil War ended and classes resumed, sports teams were not the University Greys and the mascot was not a Confederate officer. Instead, school teams were known as “The Flood.”
In 1936, staffers at the student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, sponsored a competition for a new name.
It was the late Ben A. Guider of Vicksburg, who went on to be a lawyer and circuit judge, who entered “Rebels.”
Of more than 200 suggested names, letters were mailed to 42 working newsmen containing five to pick from. A total of 21 newsmen responded and 18 liked Guider’s choice. Seventy years after the surrender at Appomattox Court House, University of Mississippi athletes first played as Rebels.
Enter another Vicksburg man, also now deceased.
Frank E. Everett Jr. earned a bachelor’s degree from the university in 1932 and a law degree in 1934. Everett earned his living as an attorney, but his passion was history. He was the first president when the Mississippi Historical Society was reorganized in 1953 after being inactive since 1912. He was directly involved with creation of the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society.
And when David Sansing, the professor who wrote the history of Ole Miss for its 150th anniversary, needed to know how Colonel Reb came to be, he had no source other than Everett.
According to Everett, via Sansing, Colonel Reb isn’t a symbolic white planter of the Old South. In fact, he perpetuates the memory of a son of slaves — Blind Jim Ivy, born in 1870 as the son of Matilda Ivy of Alabama.
As the story goes, Jim Ivy lost his sight in his early teens when coal tar got into his eyes while he was on a work crew painting the Tallahatchie River Bridge. Ivy moved to Oxford, where he became a peanut vendor and unofficial mascot for students from 1896 until he died in 1955.
Known as the “dean of freshmen,” Ivy wore a broad-brimmed hat, carried a cane, gave pep talks to students and sat with them at football games. Students admired and respected Ivy, but, of course, didn’t consider him an equal. The first known depiction of a Colonel Reb was in the 1937 Ole Miss yearbook.
In an undated essay about “the little man with the big hat and walking cane” from at least 20 or 30 years ago, Everett affirms that Blind Jim Ivy — because of his spirit and enthusiasm — was the “original live predecessor” of Colonel Reb.
A copy of the essay was given to me by Jo Ann Sharbrough, who has many of Everett’s papers. In it, Everett offers a gentle mocking to schools that use animal mascots. “The Little Rebel with the big hat is human and personal, with soul and character and confidence,” he wrote. The colonel was described as “ageless and raceless. He belongs to no era.”
Better than any animal could, Everett wrote, “the little rebel epitomizes the persistent and unconquerable zest of generations past, current and future. He has known sorrow and joy, victory and disappointment, but his eye is set steady to the future. He is history and hope.”
In the essay, Everett also speaks to what it means to be a rebel, the term first used by Northerners to describe secessionists, not by secessionists themselves. “George Washington was a rebel. Benjamin Franklin was a rebel. Martin Luther and Martin Luther King were rebels,” Everett wrote. “Geography or time do not make a rebel, but independent attitude does. It is a matter of the spirit that burns inside.”
Yes, but ….
Contemporary thinking is that whatever images Colonel Reb conjures for the Ole Miss faithful, the feisty mascot has been and will be used as “proof” they are behind the times.
So, so long Colonel.
Perception matters, and because it does, students say you’ve got to go.
Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182, or e-mail HYPERLINK amp”mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org” email@example.com.