GLADE SPRING, Va. — When Taulby Edmonson played football at Patrick Henry High School, the fight song “Dixie” was played by the band every time the team scored a touchdown.
For him, the song inspired positive feelings and represented school spirit.
But 12 years after he graduated from the Washington County school, Edmonson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech who lectures on history. He no longer supports the song, which was removed this summer as the school’s fight song, drawing an outcry from thousands who felt the move disrespected the school’s tradition.
Edmonson supports the decision to no longer play the song. He pointed out that when Patrick Henry High was established in 1960, it, like many schools in Virginia, was segregated as a whites-only school.
“Dixie” became the fight song of Patrick Henry when the “massive resistance” campaign in Virginia was formally over, but when most of the commonwealth’s schools were still resisting racial integration. Patrick Henry did not integrate until 1965, more than a decade after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
A committee at the high school made the decision to drop the song before the start of the new school year, which alarmed many members of the community, who crowded into a school board meeting last Monday to defend the school’s fight song as a staple of tradition — reflecting the experience of multiple generations of Patrick Henry students. Current and former band members said it had been seen as a musically challenging rite of passage for them.
While those who spoke out at the meeting were overwhelmingly in support of keeping the song, a few residents argued that — while they shared a wish to retire “Dixie” — the committee had made a mistake by deciding the song’s fate without community input. James Wicht, a 1993 graduate of Patrick Henry, said the resulting hostility would make it more likely that people would leave the county or be hesitant to move to the area.
But some residents now want to shift the focus back to the history of the song itself, which they say is inextricable from segregation and other forms of racism that affected blacks when the school was founded.
Kenya Bradley said her father, Jim Bradley, who lived in Glade Spring, had to go to the blacks-only Frederick Douglass High School in Bristol for most of his high school career. He graduated from Frederick Douglass in 1966.
Bradley, who graduated from Patrick Henry in 1991 and now lives in California, said while she had an overall positive experience at the school, the presence of the Confederate battle flag at the time and the playing of “Dixie” made her and other black students uncomfortable.
“It’s the reason I didn’t continue band senior year,” Bradley said. “I loved band and loved the friends I made and still do, but that song was always a thorn in my side.”
Changing the fight song, she said, removed any spirit of separateness.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, there was a surge of symbols associated with the Confederacy across the South, and Edmonson said these symbols were often meant to show opposition to integration and equal rights for black people.
“Dixie” was often performed in minstrel shows by performers in black face and was considered the de facto anthem of the Confederate States of America. Other schools such as the University of Mississippi and high schools in Texas and Oklahoma have stopped playing “Dixie,” but debate around the use of the song has existed across the country for decades.
Edmonson said he understands that, for many who attend or attended Patrick Henry, the song means tradition and school spirit like it once did for him. However, regardless of the context in which the song has been used at Patrick Henry, it has a broader context rooted in racism, he said.
“They still are used this way — as evidenced by the Charleston Church Massacre and the events in Charlottesville last summer — regardless of someone else’s personal feelings,” Edmonson said. “It is that history, and current reality, that African Americans see when they see the flag, or hear when they hear ‘Dixie.’”
Daniel Shearer, who graduated from Patrick Henry in 2000 and now lives in Roanoke, said to him “Dixie” is symbolic of conversations the community is not having and healing that isn’t occurring about its own history and its use of symbols associated with racism.
“It [‘Dixie’] is a symptom of not listening and not caring about our neighbors,” Shearer said.
By making the decision in the dark, Shearer said he believes school officials missed an opportunity to have a conversation about the school’s history. He said the community can still have a conversation that brings it together and results in some healing.