HURLEY, Va. — Chris Spencer is the only African-American student at Hurley High School, where the front doors he walks through each morning are painted with the Confederate battle flag, the first of many he’ll see on any given school day.
The helmets of his Hurley Rebels football team sport a stylized logo of the flag, flying from a saber. Equipment in the weight room is stamped with the image too. Crossed battle flags are on the wall in the school’s main office. Rebel Man, with a rebel flag, adorns center court in the gym.
But Spencer needn’t wait until he arrives at school to see such images. He carries one with him wherever he goes. The senior running back has a battle flag tattoo on the underside of his right forearm, where he cradles the ball on each carry.
“It doesn’t mean racism to me,” Spencer tells USA TODAY Sports. “I just look at it as a flag. It’s our mascot. It just means our school.”
That’s the party line in Hurley, a tiny coalmining community tucked into the southwest corner of Virginia, south of Kentucky and west of West Virginia, where longtime citizens say they just want to be left alone to rally around a symbol that’s been with them for as long as they can remember.
“It means heritage, not hate,” Hurley High principal Pam Tester says. “You won’t find a single person in Hurley who thinks different.”
And that includes Spencer, who wears his heart on his sleeve and his tattoo under it. In a community that’s overwhelmingly white, the artwork on his arm is often offered as Exhibit A for the defense.
“We got one black kid, and look at his arm,” says Steve Blankenship, whose grandson plays for the Rebels and whose cousin Tommy is running for school board with flag-emblazoned lawn signs.
Much of the rest of the nation sees the battle flag as an unfurled symbol of slavery and segregation. “That’s not what it means here,” Tester says. “Never. Virginia is for lovers.”
Renewed scrutiny of the rebel flag in public spaces emerged this summer in the wake of a massacre of nine churchgoers in South Carolina. The alleged white supremacist gunman posed with a Confederate battle flag in a photo taken before the shooting. Since, South Carolina removed the flag from its statehouse grounds and Alabama did the same. Mississippi retains the battle flag that’s incorporated in its state flag, though football coaches at Ole Miss and Mississippi State are among those who say it should go.
Rebels is the nickname at roughly 200 high schools across the USA and these days several are reviewing the name and attendant imagery. Southside High in Fort Smith, Ark., is phasing out its Rebels name and ending Dixie as its fight song. Vestavia Hills High in Alabama is rebranding its Rebels, keeping the name but eliminating some of the symbols.
No such introspection is apparent in Hurley, an unincorporated community in Buchanan County, one of Virginia’s poorest. The county was founded in 1858, just before the Civil War, and according to the 2010 census had a population of a little more than 24,000, roughly 97% white.
Hurley’s population is estimated a bit above 3,000. On game nights, it can feel as if all of them are at The Cliff, a one-of-a-kind stadium where Smiley Ratliff Field is blasted out of rock. Behind one end zone, and behind most of one sideline, is sheer stone. You can get a stiff neck peering up to the tree-topped summit.
Tester says dynamite cleared the way for this field of dreams sometime in the early 1980s. “We’re miners here,” she says. “We know how to do that.”
It’s the sort of can-do spirit that animates mountain pride hereabouts: When you can’t find 100 yards of flat earth, you make it. But coal is disappearing as a way of life and that means less work in Hurley. Darwin Bailey is out of work just now. His friend, Roger Hurley, finds common ground between unemployment and anti-flag deployment.
“The liberals and the tree huggers want to shut down the mines,” he says. “And next thing they’ll want to shut down our flag too.”
SMILEY RATLIFF’S LEGACY
Smiley Ratliff Field is named for the founding father of Hurley High football — and of the school’s rebellious nickname.
His name was Arthur M. Ratliff Jr., though everyone called him Smiley. He coached the first Rebels squad in 1951 that played just four games with borrowed equipment, according to Sam Varney, 80, who played on the original teams. The school’s first full season in 1952 brought its first championship with a gambling single-wing attack, as Varney recalls.
“We went from nothing to champions,” he says. “Smiley often said his assistant coaches were Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Robert E. Lee.”
Ratliff had more winning seasons in 1953 and 1954 and then left coaching to make his fortune in coal before branching into banking and real estate holdings. The Washington Post ran a profile of him in 1982 that said he parlayed a $1,500 bank loan into an estimated $100 million empire by mining coal with the same hellfire abandon he’d used to outflank opposing football teams.
The story describes a man who hated Franklin Roosevelt for eroding initiative, Earl Warren for destroying justice, Elvis for ruining music — and government for over-——regulation. “I’m a general on the battlefield of life,” Ratliff told the Post. “Why, hell, God created me to win.”
Ratliff’s ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War and “he told me he was born too late” to fight in it himself, Varney says, though Ratliff did fight in World War II and Korea, earning an array of medals for his service, including two Purple Hearts and a bronze star for valor.
Ratliff died at 83 in 2007. His legacy is The Ratcliffe Foundation, harkening to an earlier spelling of the family name. The foundation has net assets of more than $24 million, according to its most recently available IRS 990 form. Varney is one of its officers. Among its beneficiaries some years is Hurley High, where a field house named for Ratliff is filled with the latest weightlifting equipment — and more than a dozen images of the rebel flag.
Ratliff thought that flag “denoted courage, valor and states’ rights,” Varney says. “It was not adopted really for anything connected with slavery or hatred or anything that those who are being vocal about it say.”
What would Smiley think about statehouses and high schools retiring the battle flag? “You can’t print that,” says Varney, who’s pleased local sentiment is to keep it flying high in Hurley.
“To change it because someone else doesn’t like it,” he says, “goes against the grain of mountain independence.”
‘WE DON’T MEAN ANY DISRESPECT’
Greg Tester, the principal’s nephew, is Hurley High’s football coach. He wants outsiders to know what a good place Hurley is, how everyone knows everyone else and takes care of one another — and how the battle flag is part of all of that as a symbol of spirit, tradition and pride.
“I respect other points of view,” he says. “We don’t mean any disrespect at all.” Tester’s assistant coaches are not Napoleon, Kahn and Lee but Brandon Davis, Dustin Waynick and Travis Quinley.
“I’m 33 years old and the (front) doors have always had the flag,” Davis says. “Once, when we got new (doors), people started calling to see how soon the flag would be painted back.”
Hurley has an enrollment of 180 boys and girls in grades 9-12. That makes the Class A school one of the state’s smallest to field a football team. Tester says he has a roster of 40 this season, including ninth graders, and that every team the Rebels play is bigger — notably Class AA Grundy, bitter rival down the road.
Grundy players stomped and spit on a rebel flag when they won a tight game in 2013, tight end/linebacker Josh Mullins says, turning the tone of this mountain feud into something even fiercer. The Rebels took revenge in 2014 with a 66-8 stomping, Hurley’s first win in the series since 1991. Cue the Hatfields: Rachel McCoy scored the last points on a two-point conversion. She graduated a local legend.
“We’re like a small-town Texas team you read about,” Quinley says. “We’re just tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains.”
Blankenship, watching a crisp practice on a steamy afternoon, explains how much the Rebels, and the rebel flag, mean to this tight-knit town. He points to a spot near the precipice behind the end zone, where the battle flag was long ago painted into rock, the faded remains still visible if you know where to look, leaving stunned viewers to ponder how on earth the painter got up there.
“Got to be 150 feet, easy,” Blankenship says. “That’s what’s called loving your flag, ain’t it?”
Those who oppose it say the rebel flag stands for the fight for slavery in the Civil War — and the fight against civil rights a century later. Blankenship brands that as political correctness and agrees with Donald Trump, who said in a different context in this month’s Republican debate that political correctness is a big problem in the country.
“Everything he says, I like,” Blankenship says. “It’s like he’s reading my mind.”
WHAT THEY CHOOSE IT TO MEAN
It is Friday night in mid-August, “Meet the Rebels” night at The Cliff. Hundreds pay $3 to be there for an evening of bows and smiles, sort of like a football game if it ended after the introductions. Only here it isn’t just the players introduced — it’s players plus cheerleaders in iterations from varsity to pee-wee. Fans munch on chili dogs and popcorn. Parents and grandparents watch the festivities under rebel flags flapping in the breeze atop the bleachers.
The players gather in the locker room before their introductions and Pastor Eugene Whited of Blackey Baptist Church offers a sermon near the mount. He tells the team the game of football is like the game of life and they should remember Philippians 4:13, how they can do all things through Christ, who strengthens them.
Minutes later the pastor offers a prayer over the stadium sound system. Then, show time: The Rebels charge onto the field, Mullins carrying the battle flag as if into battle, and the crowd roars.
The vibe is small-town sweetness, but as the night winds down Rebels fans Darwin Bailey and Roger Hurley introduce themselves to a reporter to ask some pointed questions. They wonder why USA TODAY Sports is here. They worry that any publicity will be negative publicity, because outsiders can’t truly understand their love of town, team and flag.
“It has nothing to do with hatred or anything else they want to say,” Bailey says. “We’re one big family here. You can see that tonight.”
Roger Hurley says a national story can only lead to no good. “When this hits USA TODAY, we’re ruined,” he says, predicting protesters from elsewhere will arrive before this season is out. “Why punish the kids?”
Buchanan County’s motto is “Nature’s Wonderland.” Hurley offers echoes of Alice’s.
Humpty Dumpty tells Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Substitute symbol for word and you have Hurley and its rebel flag. Here, residents believe that flag means what they choose it to mean. They don’t much care whatever it might mean to a wider world they’d rather not hear from. They just want to watch their Rebels score touchdowns at The Cliff, where that flag painted high on rock face fades ever so slowly into history.