Students and alumni of that venerable Southern institution Ole Miss are currently reeling at the news that the university has decided to replace its controversial mascot, Colonel Reb, a white-bearded Confederate Army officer, with an as-yet-undetermined new one — a horse, perhaps. To many, abandoning the controversial colonel, who hasn’t been the school’s official mascot since 2003, makes sense. Even if just some among the Ole Miss student body — 14 percent of which is black — are offended by Reb, then he cannot represent the school as a whole.
Nevertheless, a group of stalwarts is refusing to back down. One student group, the Colonel Reb Foundation, has already gathered thousands of signatures to protest Reb’s expulsion. And when The New York Times interviewed fans at a recent Ole Miss football game, the resistance to a new mascot was obvious: ” ‘Over. My. Dead. Body,’ said Mack Allen, 36, an alumnus and technology analyst from Memphis, who wore a T-shirt to a recent football game that read, ‘Colonel Reb — Loved by Many, Hated by Few.’ “
Like the movement to keep the Confederate flag on government buildings in South Carolina, the Colonel Reb fight is yet another public instance of a group of proud Southerners standing together to fight for their right to show nostalgia for the Old South. And just as I did about the movement to keep the Confederate flag alive, I can’t help asking myself once again, “What’s there to be nostalgic for?”
In Chapter 9 of Harriet Ann Jacobs’ firsthand account of bondage in North Carolina, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs describes a punishment inflicted upon a male slave who had been caught fleeing a neighboring plantation:
Some weeks after his escape, he was captured, tied, and carried back to his master’s plantation. This man considered punishment in his jail, on bread and water, after receiving hundreds of lashes, too mild for the poor slave’s offence. Therefore he decided, after the overseer should have whipped him to his satisfaction, to have him placed between the screws of the cotton gin, to stay as long as he had been in the woods. This wretched creature was cut with the whip from his head to his foot, then washed with strong brine, to prevent the flesh from mortifying, and make it heal sooner than it otherwise would. He was then put into the cotton gin, which was screwed down, only allowing him room to turn on his side when he could not lie on his back. Every morning a slave was sent with a piece of bread and bowl of water, which were placed within reach of the poor fellow. The slave was charged, under penalty of severe punishment, not to speak to him … The master who did these things was highly educated, and styled a perfect gentleman. He also boasted the name and standing of a Christian, though Satan never had a truer follower.
I like to think of this story, the tale of a good Southern chap who dabbled in torture, whenever I read something about people paying reverence to the South of old. In my estimation, it very tidily summarizes the type of man Ole Miss’ Colonel Reb might very well have been, if he were a real person: a wealthy, august gentleman, who incidentally fought under a terrorist banner for the right to own blacks, but also considered African Americans to be so subhuman that he could slaughter them at will, and by whatever gruesome means he fancied.