The word “maroon” has many meanings – a burgundy color or to be left alone in an isolated location like an island.
For local residents, it’s the George Wythe High School mascot. But there is another definition, one that prompted a GWHS student to create a petition seeking to change the school mascot. Escaped slaves in Jamaica who formed communities in the mountains of that country were known as maroons.
“It came to my attention about two weeks ago when a bunch of students looked up what maroon meant,” she said. “I didn’t think it was right; I thought something needed to change. I didn’t feel comfortable with the name after I found out, and I know other students who didn’t feel comfortable after the fact. I am bi-racial, and it really hit close to home.”
The student, whom the Wytheville Enterprise agreed not to name at the request of the student’s mother, said she wrote the petition after seeking advice from a teacher and a school administrator. It was emailed last week to students via Google Forms, a software program that allows users to create forms and surveys.
Someone posted a portion of the petition on a Facebook page, where it drew more than 1,200 comments by Friday afternoon. The post had been removed by Monday morning.
In a statement, Wythe County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Jefferies acknowledged the petition.
“Wythe County Public Schools became aware of a student-created petition on Thursday, September 16, 2021,” the statement said. “The aim of the petition appears to be seeking support to change the mascot name at George Wythe High School. This petition was not authorized by George Wythe High School administration or Wythe County Public Schools. The division’s review of the distribution of the petition will be kept confidential as a personnel matter.”
The student said on Monday that she had 50 signatures on the petition so far. She said she has taken some flak from students who think she is dampening school spirit.
“I’m very determined,” she said. “I didn’t do this to take away anyone’s school spirit. I think people are getting the wrong message. I just strongly feel the name should be changed.”
Along with talking about how the term is associated with escaped slaves in Jamaica, the petition discusses the school’s namesake, George Wythe, who was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence and a slaveholder.
The petition acknowledges that Wythe freed slaves and advocated against slavery but argues that countless historical figures are praised just because they were part of history “and in our case, many definitions swept under the run because people don’t want to deal with the mess our ancestors created.” It further states that “we can help resurface the concerns and mend the problems they’ve created.”
The petition makes clear that it isn’t seeking to change the color scheme at the school, only the maroon name. It says that many would be upset with such a change simply because “that is what all of us … have grown up with.” She references other recent changes in the state, including the Sept. 8 removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, saying that in 2016, a then-16-year-old high school student started a petition to have the statue removed.
The petition says that the name should be changed “sooner rather than later,” adding that “even if we can’t change the past, we can help change the future.”
To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 573, or email firstname.lastname@example.org