By Beau Cribbs
At the risk of pulling a muscle from patting myself on the back, I’ll admit that I was a pretty popular guy in high school. I went to Douglas Southall Freeman in Henrico County, and I did everything. It’s actually kind of a miracle that I slept at all during those four years: I was senior class president, was voted “friendliest” by my classmates and was drum major of the marching band.
I even won a faux male beauty pageant during my senior year, complete with an evening wear competition, Q&A and a talent portion in which I performed a joke rhythmic gymnastics routine to the theme of “Chariots of Fire.” I was quite literally “Mr. DSF.” (For those keeping track, that last paragraph is reason 8,130 why I will never be elected to Congress.)
But in the 17 years since I graduated, I’ve realized that my fun and memorable high school years were almost certainly made easier by the fact that I am a white, straight, cisgender male.
Let’s imagine a young non-white student entering my old high school for the first time. Blue and gray “rebel” mascots and wordmarks are around every corner on a site just 10 miles from the White House of the Confederacy. It’s impossible to picture this without feeling rejected, unwelcome, misunderstood or unimportant.
The recent weeks of social unrest have made me have an honest conversation with myself about my privilege and how it has shaped me. I’ve thought of my youth and compared my experiences to those of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Nina Pop and too many others that haven’t been filmed.
I think of the times I got simple slaps on the wrist for showing up a couple minutes late to class or for going off-script to tell a bad joke on the morning announcements. Sometimes I wonder if these scenarios would have gone differently if my skin were a different color than the vast majority of the students at the school, or if my family had recently immigrated, or if I was openly gay or trans. I think I know the answers to those questions. You probably do too.
In Ms. Rutkoski’s 10th grade English class, we read Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” and I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t reread it again until last week. It gutted me.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the…Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,…who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”
That was me in high school.
One small example: I had a classmate whose truck featured a massive Confederate battle flag decal and a customized car horn that played “Dixie.” While I didn’t actively associate myself with this guy, I also didn’t do anything to confront him — nobody I knew did. We just kind of rolled our collective eyes and bit our tongues instead of talking to each other about how we thought it was wrong.
But as I’ve grown, so has my perspective. And I’m hopeful that the conversation I’ve been having with myself has been happening with other well-intentioned white dudes as well.
It is long past time for guys like me to actively identify personal and societal blind spots not only for obvious things like monuments in the middle of the street (or, ahem, flags flying as recently as 48 hours ago), but for commonplace things we’ve never really thought twice about — things that we might reflexively excuse as “the way they’ve always been,” even if they are frustratingly outdated.
Things like a high school mascot or namesake, for example.
As a lowly incoming freshman, neither rebel iconography nor Douglas Freeman’s segregationist worldview kept me awake at night. Sure, I knew they were antiquated links to our region’s history, but if I’m being honest, I mostly just wanted to goof off with my friends in the cafeteria and hope the girl in Mr. Bright’s history class acknowledged my existence.
In other words, I kind of shrugged my shoulders and moved on. Order over justice.
Currently, there’s a debate about the possibility of renaming roads, parks, bridges, military bases and, yes, public schools in every corner of Virginia. It’s an emotional debate for sure, so let’s stick to the facts.
It is a fact that calling a school’s sports teams, arts groups and academic clubs “rebels” is an unmistakable nod to the Confederacy. Spare me the notion that “rebel” could mean ANY non-specific insurgent group. I suppose the Philadelphia Eagles could be named after the band behind “Hotel California.” But they aren’t. They’re named after the bird.
It’s also a fact that naming a school after a man like Douglas Freeman is the perfect embodiment of the Lost Cause’s game plan in Virginia as a whole. It’s no accident that it opened its doors for the first time just five months after the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board in 1954.
And here’s something else I was never taught at my Central Virginia high school: After Lee surrendered at Appomattox, another war immediately began. But this time it wasn’t over the buying and selling of kidnapped human beings – it was over the historical narrative we were to teach students in schools for generations to come. A war of storytelling.
And this war wasn’t being fought on battlefields by men like Lee, Jackson, Stuart or Semmes. It was fought in the halls of the State Capitol and Congress by men like Byrd and Godwin, and on the pages of daily newspapers like the Richmond News Leader — a publication edited by Douglas Southall Freeman for 34 years.
Truth be told, I used to think it was kind of cool to go to a school named after a journalist as opposed to, say, a Confederate general or segregationist politician. Nevermind that I neglected to actually learn more about the specifics of Freeman’s writings until well after I got my diploma.
As a newspaper editor, Douglas Freeman built a prominent career by promoting the “Virginia Way,” described by University of Richmond professor Julian Maxwell Hayter as a “local brand of racist yet genteel paternalism, which held that Blacks had willingly consented to racial segregation.”
But he gained most of his acclaim for his doting biographies of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, where he very proudly described the Confederate general as “kind” and said that “in every sense,” Lee was “the popular idol of many million Southerners (sic).”
He also, tellingly, said that Lee deserved a “lasting reputation” in the eyes of students. For perspective, a 1992 column in Newport News’ Daily Press said that Freeman “exerted more influence over Virginia in his day than any man except Harry Byrd Jr.” That was said as a compliment, by the way.
I know there are a million opinions about changing names or removing monuments, and a warning I hear ad nauseum is about the dangers of erasing history. But couldn’t it be argued that men like Douglas Freeman already did that a long time ago?
It’s almost too perfect: Tall tales published by warriors of the Lost Cause ultimately led to the tacit acceptance of schools named in their honor, where these same tall tales would then be regurgitated back to a new generation. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Some might say that there are far more important things to worry about than high school mascots and namesakes, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m also not naïve enough to think that institutional racism will magically disappear if the school buys a new costume for a goofy-looking character to wear on the sidelines at football games.
But progress still needs to be made — even when it’s progress in the form of a small symbolic gesture. In a lot of ways, that is exactly why I support changing the mascot and namesake of Douglas Southall Freeman High School. My alma mater.
The significance of this action would be in its insignificance. And such a tiny but tangible step would show that institutions are finally having a more honest conversation about their own societal blind spots in 2020.
When I started at Freeman, I was mainly worried about whether or not I could physiologically get stuffed into a locker like I saw in the movies. But I never worried that my high school community wouldn’t accept me for who I was. It never once crossed my mind.
We can no longer politely look away when it comes to roads, parks and schools named after warriors of the Lost Cause. It was wrong when I did it as a student at Freeman in the late 90s/early 2000s, and given the moment we’re currently experiencing, it would be worse to do it now. All of us (myself included) need to keep working, learning, listening and ultimately “form a more perfect Union,” as Mrs. Jones made me memorize.
Legend has it that a not-so-subtle sign hung in Douglas Freeman’s downtown Richmond office that read “Time Alone Is Irreplaceable. Waste It Not.” And as we work to figure out when we should reckon with our past and write a new chapter in a more inclusive Virginia history book, I can’t think of a better mantra.
Take it from me. I was Mr. DSF.
Beau Cribbs is a Richmond-based media consultant and occasional comedy writer. He hates writing about himself in the third person. He can be reached at [email protected]