By Albert Lin
A Florida school board on Monday voted unanimously (7-0) to change the name of a Jacksonville high school that honors former Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan B. Forrest. Perhaps the only question is why it took so long at a 1,300-student school that is 61.6 percent Black; the school board struck down a previous attempt to change the name in 2007, voting 5-2 against.
“We recognize that we cannot and are not seeking to erase history,” said board member Constance Hall. “For too long and too many, this name has represented the opposite of unity, respect, and equality.”
“We need to make today about honoring the future, which is our children,” said Jason Fischer, another board member.
Jacksonville resident Omotayo Richmond started a petition on Change.org titled “Duval Public Schools: No More KKK High School” that garnered more than 160,000 signatures. Richmond wrote: “I don’t want my daughter, or any student, going to a school named under those circumstances. This is a bad look for Florida—with so much racial division in our state, renaming Forrest High would be a step toward healing.”
Before the vote, the district surveyed several groups of stakeholders (students, faculty, alumni, community, etc.) and the results were surprisingly divided. Sixty-four percent of students wanted to change the name of the school, while 94 percent of alumni wanted to keep it. Seventy-five percent of Parent-Teacher Association members wanted to change the name, while the same percentage of community members and 52 percent of faculty wanted to keep it.
Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said that the same groups will be polled the rest of the week on one of two names—West Side High or Firestone High—with the winner presented to the board on Jan. 7. The change will go into effect for the 2014–2015 school years. Students will also be asked if they want to keep the school mascot, the Rebel.
“It is clear that the Nathan B. Forrest name represents disparate views that have led to a cloud of divisiveness that we have had an opportunity to address and remove today,” Vitti said. “I am convinced that my recommendation and the board’s decision will move Jacksonville and the school district forward and allow us to focus on what matters most—student achievement.”
The school has been named after Forrest since its opening in 1959. Forrest was a plantation owner, a slave trader and a Confederate lieutenant general whose troops were involved in the massacre of black Union soldiers at the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee. He was also elected the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed shortly after the Civil War.
Other landmarks honoring Forrest, including a bust in Selma, Ala., a statue in Memphis, Tenn., (located in what used to be called Nathan Bedford Forrest Park), a statue in Nashville, Tenn., and a 2011 proposal for a Mississippi license plate, have also met with resistance.
A grades 6–12 school in Chapel Hill, Tenn., where Forrest was born, is still named after him.