EASTERN, Ky. — The welcome sign at Allen Central High School is home to a grinning Confederate soldier, proudly waving a banner bearing the St. Andrew's cross of the Confederate battle flag. The courtyard nearby is composed of blue brick that forms the cross and a mural in the lobby pays homage to another rebel soldier, this one carrying the flag on horseback.
More rebel soldiers and Confederate flags cover the same walls that hold posters touting academic achievement, fundraising drives and notable attendance of the all-white student body.
The students know all about the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, about the many schools that have banned its presence on campus. They know that many associate it with slavery and racism.
Yet, they defend their displays with firm conviction.
"To us it's not about the hatred," said Tiffany Owens, an 18-year-old cheerleader at Allen Central High. "I have colored friends around here and they never say anything."
Indeed, the students at this rural school in Kentucky are willing to risk their image to keep the Confederate emblems they say symbolize nothing more than strength, independence and pride.
Most recently, they successfully took on a local school board member who questioned whether the students should associate themselves with Confederate symbols.
"It's our tradition," said Charles Randolph, 18. "If I was black, it probably would bother me. But if they can understand it wasn't put toward them in hatred, it wouldn't be an issue."
The black students who have encountered Allen Central's school spirit don't accept such views, though they do little to fight back.
"It really makes me mad," said Ted Honaker, one of two dozen black students at Pikeville High School, about 25 miles away.
The 17-year-old plays basketball against Allen Central and says he's sick of looking at Confederate flags in the stands when the two teams face off. The only thing that bothers him more is the assumption that the black students don't care about the displays.
"It brings back slavery and what happened to my ancestors," said Honaker.
Despite his feelings, Honaker and his twin brother, Tim, don't lash out.
"I mean, what good would it really do?" Tim Honaker said.
In eastern Kentucky, some schools districts are nearly 99% white.
The Honakers' black schoolmates make up just under 3% of Pikeville High's 559 students. Black students make up only half a percent of the county's 10,945 students.
In Floyd County, home of Allen Central, there are 33 black students out of 6,348 students in the county, making up less than 1%.
Even Mickey McGuire, the school board member who criticized Allen Central's school flag and mascot, felt outnumbered. No one else on the five-member board, which has no black members, has spoken up.
"I really don't think those people intended it in a racial way, but these are children who don't realize how racially sensitive that flag is," McGuire said. "They have no sensitivity toward what black people feel about that flag."
Lorena Hall, principal at Allen Central, says that every few years, someone like McGuire will "stir the pot" about the Confederate symbols. But her school won't budge.
"It has nothing to do with racism," said Hall. "It's a part of us."
The school should be applauded for standing by its flag and mascot, especially when so many schools are steering away from Confederate symbols, said T.Y. Hiter, division commander for the Eastern Kentucky Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"It has nothing to do with race except in the minds of those who think it does," Hiter said.
"This is an atypical situation," he added. "We usually deal with situations where schools are trying to restrict the rights of students who want to display the flag. Here, the school is taking the lead of displaying their heritage."
Therein lies the danger, others say.
"I'm just troubled by the sort of historical amnesia they're exhibiting," said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University. "When these kids say, 'This doesn't represent race to me,' they're saying they have forgotten history."
To continue to display the Confederate flag at a school these days — more than 140 years after the end of the Civil War — is irresponsible, said Steven Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
"You don't have to buy that the Confederate flag means anything bad to recognize that it hurts people's feelings and should be done away with," Voss said. "Continuing to embrace the Confederate flag symbol, knowing what it means nationwide, is not responsible for a government-funded organization to do."
However, neither suggested taking away Allen Central's symbols by force. Doing so would be unfair to the students who just want to exhibit school pride, said Voss.
He suggested school officials and community members work together to come up with symbols that celebrate heritage without hurting anyone.
Meanwhile, the longtime debate over the issue has pushed several other public schools this year to distance themselves from Confederate symbols:
- A student at Farmington High School in Missouri is suing his school district after being suspended for wearing a cap and T-Shirt bearing the Confederate flag.
- Officials at Harrison High School in Indiana banned any flag, except for the American flag, from being brought to school after two students brought a Mexican flag and Confederate flag to a pep rally.
- The Midland school district in Texas this year considered renaming the Robert E. Lee Freshman High School's yearbook to something other than "The Confederate," after a parent complained.
The Kentucky Department of Education has left the issue up to local school districts.
McGuire, whose term is over in January, doesn't anticipate any changes at Allen Central in the near future.
"But eventually the school system has to take responsibility for that," he said.
Allen Central adopted its school flag and mascot in 1972, when it was established to consolidate four other schools and their teams: the Maytown Wasps, the Garrett Black Devils, the Wayland Wasps and the Martin Purple Flash.
Students from each school formed a committee to decide a mascot. They came up with the Rebels.
"We took the rebel soldier as being independent, ready to stand up for ourselves," said Hall, who was an Allen Central teacher at the time. "The flag just came along with it."
Nearly 35 years later, the students proudly attend school competitions and events locally and statewide, sporting their rebel T-shirts, jackets, hats and, of course, the school flag.
The students interviewed say they've experienced a lot of stares and whispers at events, but no major confrontations.
"We just tell them we don't mean it that way," Owens said.