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    Boone County alum pressures her old high school to change Rebels nickname

    By Madeline Mitchell, Cincinnati Enquirer,

    24 days ago

    Akilah Hughes was a dedicated Boone County High School student in the early 2000s. She was on student council, helped with the yearbook and participated in speech and drama. But as much as she loved being involved with after-school activities, "winning awards for a confederate team" never sat right with the Florence native.

    Now, nearly 20 years after she graduated, Hughes is making several trips from Los Angeles to her hometown in an effort to put the school's Rebels nickname to rest.

    "Enough time has passed," Hughes said. "Why are they still the Rebels?"

    The school's nickname is rooted in America's ugly history of slavery and oppression toward Black people, she said. Hughes, who is Black, has been advocating for the school to drop the Rebels name for years, alongside other passionate community members. The school phased out the Mr. Rebel caricature, who was clad in a Confederate uniform, in 2017, but the Rebels nickname remains.

    Though slavery was legal in Kentucky until 1865, the state did not secede from the Union during the Civil War and was not part of the Confederacy.

    Schools and professional sports teams across the country have retired certain mascots and logos deemed problematic or racist over the last several years. Several have dropped names and mascots linked to the Confederacy and to Native American imagery.

    Cleveland's baseball team changed its name from the Indians to the Guardians two years ago, and there's still debate over the Kansas City Chiefs' logo, which Native American activists say makes a mockery of indigenous people. Maine was the first state to ban racist mascots and the last of its high schools retired a Native American mascot in 2020. In Illinois, lawmakers are considering a similar bill for K-12 schools.

    The trend is widespread and inevitable, Hughes said. And she doesn't want her alma mater to be on the wrong side of history.

    But changing the nickname, a school spokesperson said, is up to the school's decision making council. That council takes in feedback from current students and local stakeholders.

    "The only person that has shown up to complain at these meetings (twice, last December and last night) is one person who does not live in the community," a district spokeswoman wrote to The Enquirer. "If and when this should become an issue, Boone County High School will listen to and welcome feedback (as they did with the retired caricature mascot) and encourage students and local stakeholders to be involved."

    More than 1,400 people signed a petition to change the school's mascot in 2020, with no movement from district leaders.

    September podcast release

    Hughes doubled down over the past year, talking on the phone and exchanging emails with school leaders, to no avail. Now, she's had enough.

    On Wednesday, Hughes switched tactics. At a school community meeting held the evening of Juneteenth, Hughes announced to school leaders that she'll be releasing a podcast in September detailing her efforts to change the school's mascot.

    In the teaser for the podcast, Hughes said the show follows her efforts to get school officials to "change their racist mascot, the Rebels, into something everyone in the south loves, the Biscuits." Her suggested name may be a joke, but she said she's serious about getting rid of the Rebels name.

    Listeners to her tale "will see exactly what we have been up against in trying to bring progress and opportunity" to the school, Hughes told the council.

    "You still have time to be on the right side of this, but you’re going to have to actually do something," she said during public comment. "We aren’t going anywhere. This issue isn’t going anywhere."

    The council didn't address her but looked back at Hughes with "dead-eyed stares," she said.

    Hughes knows, from growing up in Boone County, that people in Northern Kentucky care about appearances. She said this is a community that never wants to appear unwelcoming, so she's hoping pressure from the podcast will spark urgency on the mascot issue.

    "Sometimes you have to reveal who people are for them to be compelled to change," Hughes said.

    Her podcast, "Rebel Spirit," will be released in early September.

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