Taking another step forward in the South

Last Friday, browsing Social Reader on my smartphone while waiting on my daughter to get out of school, I ran across a story about a recent controversy over the renaming of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida. This story aligns with other stories that I’ve written about here before, like the school that finally integrated their prom in 2013, because schools are often the front lines of how communities socialize their children and perpetuate their ideals.

Opened in 1959, Forrest High School was named for a Confederate general who then became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. According to generally accepted historical accounts, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a particularly brutal military leader whose massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow led to charges of war crimes. (There’s a pretty good bio of him on, oddly enough, the website of PBS’s Antique Roadshow.)

Yet, Forrest had no ties (that I could find) to Jacksonville, Florida, and I would guess that the school’s name fits into that Deep Southern tradition of naming schools for Confederate heroes in the 1950s and 1960s, during the period of school integration. (For example, in Montgomery, Alabama where I live, we have a Robert E. Lee High School and a Jefferson Davis High School, which opened in 1955 and 1967 respectively. Lee was a proud native Virginian, and Jeff Davis was a Mississippian who only spent a few months in Montgomery when it was the short-lived first capitol of the Confederacy.) Since Forrest was a Tennessean who spent some time in Mississippi, I would guess that naming a northeastern Florida high school after him in 1959 was more symbolic than anything else.

The recent controversy over Forrest High School apparently began when a local man, who is African American, put a petition on Change.org to urge the school board to change the name. More than 160,000 people have signed it. And the title of this news article from the local public broadcasting station says it all: “Duval County School Board Votes Unanimously To Start Renaming Process for Forrest High.” The Board had voted in 2008 not to rename the school, but this time the result was different.

The Board voted to move forward, but the opponents had their say at a meeting earlier in the week. This passage from a local news story about that meeting and the objections stood out to me:

A procession of about a dozen people, many of whom were Forrest High alumni, told the council that the name should not be changed, mainly for two reasons.

One, they said Nathan B. Forrest was not the murdering, racist and hateful man that others in the community are portraying him to be. Second, the opponents say changing the school’s name would be costly and the funds used to change the school should be redirected for academic purposes.

I’m thankful that the school board didn’t listen to that foolishness. I don’t even want to elaborate on why that first reason is absurd. As for the second reason, any money that is spent dismantling honorifics bestowed upon KKK leaders is money well-spent.

It’s my opinion that, all over the South, we need to rename every one of these schools that was created with racist motives in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Using realistic current historical insights, we need to undo that reactionary legacy from every school that was opened for two unseemly reasons: to re-segregate white children covertly through new school construction and re-zoning, and to perpetuate dying ideals by naming the new schools for highly symbolic though locally irrelevant figures.

The Civil Rights-era racists who were using legal means to defy Brown v. Board must have been thinking, if we can glorify a name by making it synonymous with one’s youth and later with the concept of one’s alma mater, then why not ingrain a positive view of the old Confederacy that way? The power of those political moves to affect our consciousness can’t be ignored, and by altering those names we can return their presence in our culture to their true meaning: people who fought with all their might to preserve slavery, racism, and inequality.

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