What the Debate over Nathan B. Forrest High School Says About Us

More Photos from the Forrest High Decision

Jacksonville’s Confederate Monuments and Memorials

I saw it Halloween night, this maw of racial animus that seems to be the putrid compost of Jacksonville’s magnolia blossom gentility. 

It was at a party in Riverside, a gathering of neighbors on a wide front porch festooned with spider webs and jack o’lanterns, handing out candy to costumed children. On a porch swing sat a Jacksonville grand dame decked out as a witch. Another aging, inebriated Southern Belle of old-timey Jacksonville was seated beside her, dressed as an antebellum ancestor.

The hostess, a lady who’s not one to mince words, brought up a news story in which a self-proclaimed chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had asked the Duval County School Board to keep the name of Nathan B. Forrest High School despite the ongoing objections of the city’s black community. Forrest, of course, was a slave trader and Confederate general whose troops massacred surrendering black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, Tenn. After the Civil War, he became the Klan’s first grand wizard.

The KKK’s endorsement, the hostess contended, was reason enough to change the school’s name.

The witch wasn’t having it. If Forrest High is changed, she snapped, what’s next? Robert E. Lee High School? Jefferson Davis Middle School? Why not change the name of the city itself? Andrew Jackson, after all, begat the Trail of Tears. Where does it end? She then transitioned into the Trayvon Martin story, going on about how he should have known he’d look suspicious walking around a gated community on a rainy night wearing a hoodie.

The woman in the Southern Belle costume piped in, complaining that blacks are permitted to say the n-word, but whites can’t. “Tell me, why do they call each other niggers?” she bellowed over and over again, as tiny, multihued princesses and bumblebees padded up the stairs in search of a sugar rush.

This was the party killer. A mild-mannered retired psychologist tried to hush her, to no avail. Alarm flashed across his face. “I’m out of here,” he said to the air as he left.

The witch stormed off, too, feeling triumphant. After she learned the hostess was a Daytona Beach native, there was nothing more to discuss. If she’s wasn’t from Jacksonville, her thoughts about Forrest High were irrelevant. The Southern Belle soon followed, distracted enough by the promise of food to stagger on to the next party.

Through the many months — years — of debate over Forrest High, which the School Board unanimously voted to rename Dec. 16, I kept hearing, behind the talk of Southern heritage, the edifice of the white privilege that is the scaffolding upon which so much of the city’s civic life hangs. The voices of this Jacksonville dismissed those who took offense at the school’s name as simpletons who’d been deceived by rumor and disinformation. If you only bothered to learn the truth, they’d tell you, you’d realize that Nathan Bedford Forrest was really a hero for our age, a great man, someone whom white and black students alike should revere.

That’s simply not true.

“Nathan Bedford Forrest was a homicidal criminal,” says Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and one of the country’s foremost experts on the Civil War and Reconstruction. More important, he says, this pervasive historical revisionism, this insistence on glossing over the sins of yesteryear, prevents long-standing psychic wounds from healing.

“Reconciliation requires truth,” Foner says. “You have to have one to have the other. It’s not, ‘Slavery is over. You need to get over it.’ Reconciliation requires facing the truth, and facing the truth about Nathan Bedford Forrest.”


Men of Southern States

A few weeks later, I set my book bag down at a conference table at the Museum of Southern History, opened my laptop and made a little spot where I could spend the day.

The Kirby-Smith Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans founded the museum in 1975. It was dedicated to telling the “real” story of the Civil War, a version in which the South sought to defend liberty against a foreign invader. I was told that if I wanted to understand the truth about Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederacy he fought for, absent the propaganda, this is where I should be, encamped in the museum’s 6,000-volume research library.

Jim Shillinglaw, a tall, personable man with sleepy eyes and an easygoing manner, made me feel welcome. The Sons’ Northeast Florida heritage coordinator was possessed of the belief that if I really dug into the historical record, I would reach the same inescapable conclusion that he had: Forrest was a great warrior and defender of country, not a racist monster. The media and the activists and the School Board have it all wrong.

As volunteers a table away stuffed enveloped with reminders to renew museum memberships, I dived into Forrest’s 1871 testimony before Congress about the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. It is this testimony, which covers 31 pages of fine, almost translucent linen paper, that Shillinglaw and other Sons of Confederate Veterans members argue exonerates Forrest of the worst charges against him: He wasn’t involved in the KKK, and he certainly wasn’t the grand wizard he’s made out to be. He said so himself.

In reality, Forrest’s testimony didn’t clear anything up. He both denied being involved in the Klan and told his inquisitors quite a lot about it. He admitted that the Klan was a secret organization and that it had secret passcodes, but said he couldn’t remember any. When prodded, he declined to answer questions because he didn’t want to incriminate himself. When asked who joined the organization, Forrest answered simply, “Men of Southern states.”

Southerners’ fears of a black insurrection drove them to organize, he explained. 

“The negroes were holding night meetings; were going about; were becoming very insolent; and the Southern people … were very much alarmed.”

He told Congress that he wasn’t the Klan’s leader, but also said that he ordered the group’s disbandment in 1868 because its members had taken to dressing in hooded costumes and riding at night to intimidate former slaves. In Shillinglaw’s telling, the Klan was originally a fraternal organization that only later evolved into a terrorist group.

In this version of history, Forrest actually became a proto-civil rights activist toward the end of his life, and blacks should recognize him as their champion. On Independence Day, 1875, two years before his death, Forrest gave a speech about racial reconciliation to a gathering of some 5,000 African-Americans. Free blacks, he said, should be able to rise to whatever level in life they were capable of reaching.

David Nelson, a Sons member and owner of a Civil War memorabilia store on St. Augustine Road, sums the argument nicely: Yes, Forrest was a slave trader, but that was perfectly legal back then, and it’s not right to judge historical figures by modern morality. Also, he was nice to his slaves. He tried to keep slave families together.


Unexampled in the Record of Civilized Warfare

Let’s deconstruct this revisionist mythology one element at a time.

Forrest wasn’t just a slave trader. He was a man who made his fortune on the backs of others’ coerced labor. He not only called the Civil War a battle over slavery, but also was so passionately behind the pro-slavery cause that he paid for his own cavalry to fight the Union.

As for Forrest’s later involvement with the Klan, the commonly accepted notion that Forrest was the group’s first grand wizard didn’t originate with a liberal Northerner bent on sullying his good name. Instead, it’s clearly stated in a friendly 1914 history of the Klan written by Laura Martin Rose, the historian for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. 

The revisionists’ history relies heavily on the general’s own denials to Congress. But Forrest had every reason to lie. “The Klan was a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda,” Foner says. “Nobody is going to admit they’re a member of Al Qaeda to Congress.”

And then there’s the most noxious event in the Forrest story: Fort Pillow. In April 1864, some 300 Union soldiers — including more than 200 black soldiers, along with civilian women and children — were massacred in cold blood after Forrest’s Confederate troops had overrun and secured the fort. “Not only had the Confederates murdered most of the garrison after it had surrendered,” wrote Civil War historian Albert Castel in 1959, “but they had buried Negro soldiers alive, set fire to tents containing Federal wounded, and committed other terrible atrocities.”

A month after the massacre, a congressional committee report put it this way: “The atrocities committed at Fort Pillow were not the result of passions committed by the heat of conflict, but were the results of a deliberately decided upon and unhesitatingly announced policy.” Forrest and his troops viewed the black soldiers as less than human; they did not “recognize the officers and men of our colored regiments as entitled to the treatments accorded by all civilized nations to prisoners of war.”

In the words of U.S. Army Major Gen. Stephen Hurlbut, then the commanding officer of the 16th Army Corps, “The information which I have from all sources, official and otherwise, is that — whether by permission of their officers, or contrary to their permission, I cannot say — a butchery took place there that is unexampled in the record of civilized warfare.”

Forrest’s defenders seize on that caveat. All this happened before the general arrived at Fort Pillow, they say, and when he discovered the massacre, he immediately put a stop to it. Had he authorized it, Nelson says, Forrest surely would have been hanged as a war criminal. Instead, President Andrew Johnson pardoned him.

“Every war criminal in history says that he didn’t know,” Foner counters. “He was in command. He was responsible for what happened. That’s why his name was on a school. He was the commander. If you’re in command, you’re responsible.”


An Emphatic Middle Finger

Even if you accept the Sons’ version of history as gospel, there’s no getting around the circumstances under which Forrest High School got its name.

The Duval County School Board’s 1959 decision to name a school after him had nothing to do with the general’s military genius or his later repudiation of the Klan’s intimidation tactics. It was an emphatic middle finger to the federal government, whose Supreme Court had recently ordered school desegregation nationwide.

“These names aren’t just pulled out of a history dictionary,” Foner says. “They often make a statement. Naming a school after Nathan Bedford Forrest five years after Brown v. Board of Education made a statement, a statement more about 1959 than about 1865.”

And there that statement stood for more than five decades, even as the world around it changed — the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the integration of Forrest High (finally) in 1971, the elections of a black president 37 years later and the city’s first black mayor three years after that. Occasional efforts to change the school’s name fell short, including the most recent one in 2008, which ended when the School Board voted 5-2 along racial lines in favor of the Forrest appellation.

But 2013 proved to be different. This time, word spread through social media, triggered by a Change.org petition started by Duval parent Omotoya Richmond, an African-American who moved to Jacksonville from Long Island and was shocked to find a school named for a Klan leader. Richmond’s petition drew nearly 200,000 signatures from people all over the world, as well as news stories in The New York Times,Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera and The Guardian. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League voiced their support. The Jacksonville Progressive Coalition made this cause its first concerted campaign. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a protest, featuring children holding signs that greeted Forrest students arriving for school.

The fire spread, and on Dec. 16 the School Board, citing students’ wishes — in a survey conducted by school administrators, 64 percent of students voted for a change — acquiesced. This was an almost entirely different body than the one that had voted to keep the name five years earlier. Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent who recommended renaming Forrest High, was also new, having started the job in September 2012.

Vitti saw the furor over the name as a distraction and an embarrassment. But there was more to it. Throughout his time here, Vitti has made a point of reaching out to Jacksonville’s black community, of attending meetings in black neighborhoods and listening to complaints from black leaders. He reassigned a spokeswoman for “the use of words that have racial connotations” and “other conversations that are inappropriate for the workplace,” according to school district records. Vitti came to Jacksonville from Miami, where multiculturalism is a fact that cannot be ignored. His wife is African-American.


Their Grandfathers Were Wrong

White Jacksonville is deeply, proudly rooted here. Theirs is a world of diaphanous Southern heritage, a graciousness fortified with giant live oaks dripping with Spanish moss — a place where you might find homemade pimento cheese sandwiches on the menu, where green grapes and pecans are mixed into quality chicken salad, where you know how to hunt for your dinner.

Black Jacksonville has roots here, too, though it’s not something most of them brag on. Their families made their livings as the doctors and lawyers and ministers and teachers who served the black community during segregation. They also worked for the white elite, doing their ironing, taking in their wash, cleaning their homes, cooking their big meals, taking care of their children.

In 1959, the School Board didn’t ask Black Jacksonville what it thought about Forrest High’s name. It didn’t matter that Black Jacksonville knew the stories of Fort Pillow, of the river there turning red with the blood, of the Confederates under Forrest’s command killing so many that they grew weary from it. Their opinions never registered — not then, not for another 54 years.

“We have to begin searching our souls about what happened throughout our history,” says Opio Sokoni. A Jacksonville native who graduated from Howard University School of Law, Sokoni is now the head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Decent white people have changed their minds and have evolved. They may have hated Dr. Martin Luther King and called him a communist, but they now realize their children live in a better world as a result of him, and their grandfather and their great-grandfathers were wrong. If they had won, we would not be in a better world today,” he says.

Throughout this debate, there’s been a blasé dismissal from vocal corners of White Jacksonville of Black Jacksonville’s real pain, an indifference that all too often seemed cruel and self-satisfied.

When an African-American Forrest alum recounted at the Dec. 16 School Board meeting how he and his band mates had refused to play “Dixie” at pep rallies and school games, a white man responded that it was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song. Why doesn’t he just get over it? There was no effort to understand why this song — the anthem of the Confederacy — would bother someone.

Shillinglaw says much the same thing: “They’ve told blacks that this stuff is hurtful and racist, and it’s not. It’s a song for people of the Southern region. It’s just as much his song as your song if you’re Chinese or Hispanic and you were born in the South.”

The day of the vote, Nelson, the memorabilia store owner, told me that the NAACP had made a decision to target Confederate memorials and namesakes in the South because all the other, more important battles of the civil rights era have been won. The battle of Forrest High, from this perspective, is trifling, a way to inflame passions by pissing on the icons of Southern heritage.

In other words, Black Jacksonville’s aggrievement shouldn’t matter.

The name change, when all is said and done, will cost the school district as much as $500,000, though Vitti hopes private investors will foot some of the bill. That’s a lot of money. But the costs of the status quo — in perpetuating African-Americans’ lack of agency, in painting Jacksonville as a racist backwater — would have been much higher.

“Jacksonville happens to be this wonderful town that has missed the mark so many times before,” Sokoni says. “It’s got the beaches, the river, the landmass, but the city is still looked at as a small hick town. Last week, Leno was making fun of it. And then all of a sudden it takes a stand against a school named after the KKK, something people have been trying to change for 50 years. Now people are thinking there might be a little progressive streak going on and they wonder, ‘What is this town going to do next?’ ”