FAIRFAX, Va. (WUSA9) -- There have been renewed efforts to change and remove symbols of the confederacy at schools across the country. It's a battle now being fought at three Fairfax high schools.
A former principal fought and won that battle years ago at his school, Fairfax High School. He removed the school's confederate mascot three decades ago. He said not much has changed.
"You have to change the culture. You first have to make the students feel accepted," said Harry Holsinger, former Fairfax High School principal.
In 1986, more than 30 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, racial tension was palpable at Fairfax High School.
Holsinger went against the majority of the student body by removing the school mascot: 'Johnny Reb' holding a blue confederate flag. Holsinger also wanted to rename the school's drill team called the Confederettes.
"My job was to make sure all kids felt accepted at Fairfax High School that was as big chunk of my job and I accomplished that, I think. I feel good about that. I felt strongly I was doing the right thing," said Holsinger.
Doing the right thing meant a two-year legal battle. Six students and three parents took Holsinger to court over violations of their First Amendment rights.
A federal judge in Alexandria initially threw out the case on the grounds it was frivolous. But the group 'Citizens for Johnny Reb' dug in their heels and appealed to the 4th Circuit. An appellate panel said the case must be heard.
"Yeah, There was hate mail. There were people who wrote me letters to give me history lessons. The same history lessons you've heard emanating from South Carolina," said Holsinger.
He did what any educator would do, he turned racial tension into teachable moments.
The students voted on a new symbol. A pair of crossed swords on an American Flag with a circle of 13 stars.
At times Holsinger said it was easier to deal with the students than the parents, alumni and people in the community. He said it was mainly civil but every once in a while at football games, it got heated.
"You like to watch the game, enjoy the kids then someone yells something, waves rebel flag I thought I don't need this, yeah it was kind of stressful," said Holsinger.
After 15 minutes of deliberating a jury ruled in favor of Holsinger.
The mascot went through many evolutions. Fairfax rebels now fight for a lion presumably inspired by the coat of arms of Lord Fairfax and the county's flag.
While all symbols of the Confederacy have been removed from the school, not all has disappeared. An alumni group on Facebook still regard Johnny Reb close to their hearts.
"What I find interesting is how little the argument has changed," said Holsinger.
Test scores increased and drop out rates declined after the symbol was removed. Holsinger believes removing the old mascot contributed to the positive academic scores.
We tried to reach out to the original group that sued Holsinger but those requests went unanswered.
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