ABINGDON, Va. — A crowded Washington County School Board meeting was filled with short speeches and, at one point, tears as 80 to 100 Patrick Henry High School students, alumni and residents of Glade Spring attended to sound off on the “Dixie” controversy at Patrick Henry High School.
Controversy erupted on July 19 when members of the Glade Spring and Patrick Henry community found out that the high school had decided to replace “Dixie” as the school fight song with a new original piece.
Superintendent Brian Ratliff said that while he had heard for years that the song “Dixie” made some people uncomfortable because of its association with the Confederacy, that had nothing to do with the decision to drop it. He told the Bristol Herald Courier last week that the new song was intended to help create a new tradition for students.
But many at the meeting were outraged that the school had made the decision without input from the community and felt that removing the song disrespected a tradition that has existed almost as long as the high school, which was finished in 1960.
“I am proud to have been a member of the Patrick Henry Rebel Regiment and to be one of the few with the honor of having to play ‘Dixie’ for the final time at Patrick Henry,” Caleb Rector said as he broke into tears.
Rector, who will start his first year at Patrick Henry High School this fall, said members of his family have played “Dixie” at Patrick Henry every decade since the school was built.
“If this doesn’t show heritage or history, I don’t know what would,” Rector said.
After news of the fight song spread, Austin Stanley, a 2016 Patrick Henry graduate, created a petition in favor of keeping “Dixie,” which has garnered almost 2,500 signatures. Stanley and many others at the meeting expressed their frustration over the decision to erase what they view as a deeply held tradition.
Others defended the song’s artistic merits — Cindy Fields, who was a member of the Rebel Regiment and graduated in 1987, said the version of “Dixie” played by the band is challenging and seen as a right of passage for young musicians. Fields also criticized the school for creating a controversy that has split the community inside and outside the school.
“In a community filled with neighbors and friends, we now found this support system blaming one another, suggesting they will no longer support our programs,” she said. “[We are] learning that school groups are forming their own agendas because a musical profession that once united them is now gone.”
Residents also argued that the context of the song at Patrick Henry has always been neutral to race and never based in racism — but instead in tradition and heritage. Others, such as Ivan Yarber, who graduated from Patrick Henry in 2016, said the decision to change the song was political correctness gone awry.
Several who spoke in favor of changing the fight song agreed the decision-making process should have been more transparent, such as James Wicht, who graduated from Patrick Henry in 1993.
Wicht, however, argued that the hostility the debate caused could discourage people from coming to or staying in Washington County.
“Among the discussions on social media that I saw on this subject, at least one commenter wrote something to the effect of, ‘If someone doesn’t like what we do, they can leave,’ to which one of my classmates said, succinctly, ‘I did,’” Wicht said.
However, those who are hoping to know the ultimate fate of the song will have to wait. Bill Brooks, the school board’s chairman, said he appreciated the public’s comments, but the issue concerning “Dixie” and Patrick Henry was not on the agenda, and so no action would be taken on it at the meeting.
Brooks did not say if the board would take action on the issue at future meetings.