THE NATHAN BEDFORD FORREST STORY...WHICH HAPPENED 5 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK!
Prior to the school opening in 1959, many Jacksonville organizations suggested names for a new segregated White high school. A name was finally chosen that had been proposed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The new school would be named “General Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.” Nathan Bedford Forrest? What an insult!
Prior to the Civil War, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men were responsible for the massacre of three hundred Blacks-men, women and children-at Fort Pillow, Tennessee under a flag of surrender. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and he was the Klan’s first Grand Wizard. Did these accomplishments warrant giving his name to a high school in Jacksonville? This was Jacksonville's Racist Response to the Brown Decision.
This viciously racist and insulting decision to name a public school for Nathan Bedford Forrest was tremendously insulting to Jacksonville’s Black community—as it should have been to the entire community—that there was a school in Jacksonville named for one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.
In August 2013, Duval County School Board member Dr. Constance Hall submitted a letter to the board and to the school superintendent formally asking them to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. At about the same time, Omotayo Richmond of Jacksonville started a petition, “Rename Nathan Bedford Forrest School,” which garnered more than 160,000 signatures. The existence of Richmond’s petition led to a letter being sent to the School Board by a Klan chapter from Missouri, saying that Forrest and the organization he helped found following the Civil War --The Ku Klux Klan--were not necessarily racist, and asking the board not to change the name.
I was asked by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to participate in the final name change meeting (or hearing), a panel discussion at the school on December 11, 2013, after which Forrest students would vote on keeping, or changing the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The four-person panel discussion... whom some characterized as a debate, although it wasn't ...had been established as part of the School System process for changing the name, so that students at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School would hear from the community on both sides of the issue. I gladly accepted, as did Professor Lance Stoll, the FSCJ sociology professor who with his students had raised the issue with the School Board five years earlier, and the two of us spoke in favor of changing the name of the high school. The other two members of the panel would speak in favor of keeping the name of the school as Nathan Bedford Forrest. Let’s just say Lance and I handled ourselves Quite Well in making the case to these students to change the name of their school.
After the panel discussion, Students at Forrest did indeed vote 67% to 33% to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest. THEY took the lead as Young Decision Makers. Papers across the country blared: “Florida School Named After KKK Leader Gets New Name.”
“A Jacksonville high school named in 1959 after a former Confederate general and the co-founder of the Ku Klux Klan has a new name. Following the vote of the students attending Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, the Duval County School Board voted on January 7, 2014, to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School to Westside High School effective July, 2014, thus ending a fifty-four-year battle to remove the name of the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan from a Duval County public school."
I thought back more than fifty years to 1960, and to the sit-ins and other activities of the Jacksonville Youth Council NAACP. Without considering the political ramifications or those who did or did not agree with their decision, students at Forrest High School decided they needed to do the right thing and removed the name of Racist Nathan Bedford Forrest from their school building.
They decided they would be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. Youth leadership emerged in Jacksonville during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Youth leadership emerged again in Jacksonville in 2013.
BTW...I included this picture of H. K. Edgerton, a Black "Whatever" who supports confederate causes and the confederate flag and shows at a various locations throughout the South with HIS confederate flag. He was picketing Forrest with his "White colleagues" when I showed up that morning.
The Struggle Continues!