Debate over school name provides history lesson on race, Confederacy

Orlando SentinelSeptember 19, 2013 

— When Jacksonville, Fla., residents pushed to change the name of Nathan B. Forrest High School, their effort quickly attracted national attention – and provided a short history lesson on the Confederate cavalry commander and early member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Their “No more KKK High School” petition drive that started this summer also cast a light on other schools across the South named for Confederate war leaders, and the history behind their monikers.

Orange County, Fla., (Orlando area) has two such schools, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Middle schools, neither of which has prompted any debate, at least in recent years.

The two Orlando campuses are the only local schools with prominent Confederate names, according to the public-school database at the National Center for Education Statistics. And those generals are viewed today as historical figures of a decidedly different sort than Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a slave trader before the Civil War, accused of war crimes during the war and an early leader in the Klan.

But whether viewed as controversial or not, these school names share a common history, experts say. They mostly were assigned to Southern campuses by white-run school boards after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school-desegregation case.

They were part of a “resurgence of Confederate identity” that emerged as part of the South’s resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools, said Bill Link, a history professor at the University of Florida who studies Southern history.

Such names were symbols of “white defiance that was prevalent in a lot of the South, including Florida, which was more of a Southern place in those days than it is now,” Link added.

What was then Lee Junior High opened in 1956, for example, and Orlando Sentinel photos from that year show students and the school principal in the courtyard raising a Confederate flag.

These days, the school has a student population that is 60 percent black, has a black principal and is part of a diverse district run by a black superintendent. Though a caricature of General Lee is still found on the school’s website, few use the full Robert E. Lee name or pay much attention to its history.

Three Orange County School Board members said no one has approached them about removing either Lee’s or Jackson’s names from the schools or even discussed the issue with them.

“I’ve never heard any parent question or be upset or have an issue with it at all,” said Jackie Kelvington, the president of Lee’s PTSA.

The Orlando mother said she has no problem with the school name that is “part of our American history.”

But Kelvington said if Jacksonville residents are offended by the Forrest name, she hopes they are successful in their quest for a change.

“That’s why we live in a democracy,” she said. “That’s why we live in this country. We have the right to express our thoughts and advocate for what we are concerned about. I hope that their school board would listen to them.”

Those pursuing the name change in Jacksonville say the Forrest name is just too egregious to remain. Duval County has four other schools with Confederate names, the most of any Florida school district, according to the national website. There are fewer than 10 such schools in Florida, though a firm count is hard to come by.

Duval also has schools named for Jackson, Lee, Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stuart.

The Nathan B. Forrest name was picked in 1959, according to published reports, at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

A previous effort to change its name failed in 2008 when a divided school board voted 5-2 along racial lines to keep it.

Former Forrest High Principal Billy Parker was pleased by the vote, according to Fox News. Parker said Forrest’s views about slavery changed after the war.

“I am thrilled to death that the school board voted it down to leave it Nathan Bedford Forrest,” Parker said.

“The thing about it is, Forrest, at the time he was alive, slavery was the thing to do and he was involved in it at the very beginning,” he said. “But when the war ended he was one of the strongest ones to do away with slavery, and they never mention that and the fact that he was a good man.”

Robert Montgomerie, a member of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition pushing for the name change today, said his group feels confident it will prevail. Members of the group have posted the petition, written online articles about Forrest and used social media to spread their message.

In his posts, Montgomerie called Forrest a “human trafficker” and “one of the vilest figures of the 19th century.”

Schools should be named for “uplifting people, people who inspire,” he said during a telephone interview. “I don’t believe you name schools after people like that.”

The recent push began last month when another coalition member, and a Jacksonville father, posted the online petition urging a new name for the school that now has a black majority.

“The school got its name … when white civic leaders wanted to protest a court decision that called for integrating public schools,” reads the petition by Omotayo Richmond.

“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.”

The petition has more than 84,000 signatures, many from out of state, and has attracted national attention.

But local support is key, so coalition members also are working to survey residents to show their support for the name change, Montgomerie said.

Those behind the recent effort decided to try again when Duval’s new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, said in July that he would support a name change if it came from Duval residents.

The petition “strongly demonstrates the thoughts and sentiments of many people throughout the country,” said Marsha Oliver, a spokesman for the Duval County school district.

But “national petitions” are not part of Duval’s school renaming process, she said, and the school board has not, to date, received any official request to change the school’s name.

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