By now most of you have heard that the Duval County School Board has decided not to change the name of a Jacksonville High School after Nathan Bedford Forrest. The sometimes divisive debates over the naming and renaming of public buildings and other sites cuts to the core of the close link between history and politics. In the case of the South these debates reflect drastic changes in the face of local and state government following the civil rights movement. They are debates over how a community uses its public spaces to reflect its shared history. Historians have written extensively in recent years concerning the way in which local and national memory has been shaped by Jim Crow politics and a belief in white supremacy.
The debate in Jacksonville is just another example of what happens when a broader spectrum of the citizenry is allowed to take part in conversations about who should be remembered and why. This has nothing to do with overturning the heritage of the South; in fact, it is entirely about forging a more inclusive memory and one that can be pointed to as reflective of a community's values. The two black members of the school board voted for changing the name of the school while the majority voted to retain it. I obviously know nothing about what went into the decision of the other members, but I have to wonder if they understood what the name might mean to a predominantly black community and even the few black students who actively voiced their concern such as senior, Cardell Brown. Did they bother to consider how their school came to be named after Forrest or why public places such as schools tended not to be named after Forrest until the civil rights movement?
While Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Kirby Smith and others were all commemorated with schools, community centers, and parks during the height of Confederate commemoration, Forrest's name remained closely tied to the KKK. In fact, the most powerful "klavern" or local Klan was the Nathan Bedford Forrest Klavern #1, located in Atlanta during the 1940s and 50s. On the eve of the opening of the school students voted to name it Valhalla, while the booster club bought football uniforms outfitted with Vikings. The decision to name the school after Forrest was a last-minute decision, although the superintendent warned that the decision might prove to be a mistake just three years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation. Was this really a coincidence?
It was a vote that led to the naming of the school, a vote to retain it, and it will only take a vote in future to change it. There is nothing sacred about the names of our public buildings. They reflect the people who either have control of local government or choose to be involved.