Why Forrest High School’s Name Must Change

Jamelle Bouie on the Nation website wrote, “What do we tell generations, especially black generations, about those great pioneers, living and dead, who impacted history and the civil rights movement and made a difference and who continue to make a difference? Public schools teach the basics of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, but there’s no attempt to go deeper with the material, and move away from the notion that racism is something reserved for the Bull Connors and Klansmen of the world.”

After giving a Black History Month speech in Orlando, I was asked during a question-and-answer period, “Is it true there is a school in Jacksonville named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan?” I said yes and proceeded to discuss the “whys” of such an insulting and racist political decision. Prior to the school’s opening in 1959, many Jacksonville organizations suggested names for a new school to be voted on at a school board meeting. After many ballots, “Nathan Bedford Forrest High School,” suggested by the Daughters of the Confederacy, won.

Who was Nathan Bedford Forrest, you ask? Try this: Confederate States general, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Fort Pillow butcher and a slave trader.

What is even more reprehensible is Jacksonville is one of only two cities in the country with schools that bear his name. The other city is his hometown of Chapel Hill, Tenn. Almost 50 years later, when the Duval County School Board could have righted that horrific wrong, it declined.

College professor Lance Stoll and his students petitioned the Duval County School Board to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. On Nov. 4, 2008, USA Today reported the story: “A Florida School Board voted late Monday night to keep the name of a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader at a majority black high school, despite opposition from a black School Board member who said the school’s namesake was a ‘terrorist and racist.’ ” By a vote of 5-2, five white members of the Duval County School Board voted to keep the name; the two “no” votes came from the two black members, Betty Seabrooks Burney and Brenda Priestly Jackson (my niece).

What defining achievements or contributions by Forrest demonstrated he was worthy of having a high school in Jacksonville named in his honor? What a blatant insult to the black community. Was Forrest a racist? Yes, an obviously violent racist. Were those School Board members who voted to keep the name racists? Some say yes, some say no. I can’t help but wonder what were the “yes” voters thinking when they made their “Southern heritage” decision. Notwithstanding Jacksonville as a city in Northern Florida with a racist past, sometimes doing the right thing extends beyond the bounds of politics. Dress it up any way you want, terrorist groups like the Klan still represent hatred and violence perpetrated on blacks before, during and after the Civil War, and today.

A description of the Fort Pillow Massacre from Harper’s Weekly (April 30, 1864): “On the 12th April, the rebel General Nathan Bedford Forrest appeared before Fort Pillow, near Columbus, Kentucky, attacking it with considerable vehemence. This was followed up by frequent demands for its surrender, which were refused by Major Booth, who commanded the fort. The fight was then continued up until 3 p.m., when Major Booth was killed, and the rebels, in large numbers, swarmed over the entrenchments. Up to that time, comparatively few of our men had been killed; but immediately upon occupying the place, the rebels commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the whites and blacks, including the wounded. Both white and black were bayoneted, shot, or sabered; even dead bodies were horribly mutilated, and children of seven and eight years, and several Negro women killed in cold blood. Soldiers unable to speak from wounds were shot dead, and their bodies rolled down the banks into the river. The dead and wounded Negroes were piled or wounded. Out of the garrison of six hundred, only two hundred remained alive. Three hundred of those massacred were Negroes; five were buried alive. Six guns were captured by the rebels, and carried off, including two 10-pound Parrotts, and two 12-pound Howitzers. A large amount of stores was destroyed or carried away.” Historians, and those who are Southern apologists disguised as Southern Heritage preservationists, always conveniently forget Forrest was a slave owner and a slave trader, where he simply peddled human flesh.

By virtue of the fact that Jacksonville is one of 32 National Football League cities in this country should make the city’s leadership understand leadership. It is unfathomable that this execrably racist and insulting decision to name a school for Forrest should still warrant discussion today. It is tremendously insulting to Jacksonville’s black community — as it should be to the entire community — that there is a school in Jacksonville named for one of the founders of the Klan. Yet over the years, Jacksonville’s leadership has not demanded a name change. It is also one of the reasons that some refuse to include Jacksonville and the word “progressive” in the same sentence.

After it was founded, the Ku Klux Klan’s numbers increased dramatically, as did the number of lynchings of blacks in the South. In 1924, the Klan had 4 million members. It also controlled the governorship and a majority of the state legislature in Indiana, as well as exerting a powerful political influence in Arkansas, Oklahoma, California, Georgia, Oregon and Texas. Those whites who would argue the Klan was just an “organization protecting states’ rights” simply ignore the obvious. The Ku Klux Klan was a terrorist organization whose main objective was to keep former slaves on plantations to work as cheap labor, to incite fear, promote violence and maintain white supremacy in the South. It has been estimated that between 1880 and 1920, an average of two blacks a week were lynched in the United States. In 1884, Ida Wells, civil rights activist and editor of Free Speech, a small newspaper in Memphis, and one of the pioneer crusaders against lynching, discovered during her investigation that within a relatively short period, 728 black men and women had been lynched by white mobs. So while the South fawns over commemorating the Civil War and slavery during the next few years, and rehashing the plaudits of a racist war, America is conspicuously silent.

Then you have those whites and blacks who say discussing issues about the Civil War and slavery are not worth the energy. I vehemently beg to differ. You cannot whitewash American history to ignore the inhumane treatment of Africans as slaves by the founding fathers.

If you were black, would you want to attend a school if you knew in advance the namesake of the school founded the Ku Klux Klan and massacred women and children? It was an insult then; it is an insult now.

There is an African proverb that says, “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. I am tired of the hunter always telling the story of the hunt his way.” Racism is taught. When will we unlearn racism? 

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