Stay, Forrest! Stay! (for now)

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. 

3 responses... add one

I had not heard that the school board decided against a name change, Kevin, until I read your post. This is a big disappointment.

How buildings are named and how the past is remembered does matter. There was a young man in our high school in the 1960s whose last name was Lee. This young man was a football player and he was black. He was very talented and he had a great future ahead of him. In this young man’s senior year, our town made it to the championship playoff games, which were held in a neighboring town. When we arrived in the town for the ball game, supporters of the home team held up a display banner that read: “The only good Lee was Robert E.Lee and he is dead”. We won the football game in spite of this attempted intimidation, and we rallied around our hero whose name was Lee. The insults of that day were not forgotten, however, and helped contribute to the destructive path into drugs that this young man later chose–a path that led to his early death. My late mother loved this young man and so did I. He was part of our family. It matters. Change that name.

The fact that there was a different original name choice is an interesting piece of news that most folks won’t hear about. I wonder if everyone of Scandanavian ancestry should get upset at their heritage not being honored?

Kevin:

As I only recently discovered your blog, this is a tardy response to your November post re: Nathan Bedford Forrest High School and the naming of public buildings.

I grew up in Orange County, California, far from any outpost of the Confederacy. You would think.  I am a not-very recent graduate of Savanna High School in Anaheim, which is not spelled like Savannah, Georgia. But, that didn’t stop people from going crazy with an imagined Old South heritage.

Our team name was The Rebels.  The center quad was dominated by a larger-than-life statue of a charging Confederate soldier, wielding a rifle with bayonet affixed.  The statue was flanked by life-size replica Civil War cannon.  On game days and after victories, the Southern Cross flew proudly on the flag pole behind the statue.  The exterior front wall of the gymnasium was covered by a red, grey and black painting of a charging Confederate soldier, again with rifle and bayonet.  Above it was emblazoned the motto “Savanna: Home of the Rebels.”  The football team uniforms were done up in a silver/grey-and-red motif, with the Southern Cross plastered on both sides of the football helmets.  Our drill team, the Rebel Annes, wore a “cute” version of Confederate uniforms, highlighted by short-shorts and black boots.  The mascot, who joined cheerleaders at football and basketball games, was dressed like a Confederate officer, complete with sword and scabbard.  At pep rallies, stomping, cheering and shouting students would wave signs bearing legends such as “The South Will Rise Again.”

As a teenager, I was confused and perplexed by all this.  I would sometimes argue with my fellow “kids” re: the inappropriateness of glorifying slavery.  The usual response was “it’s just school spirit, man.”  One day, I said fine.  If that’s true, the next time we open a new high school, we should call it Auschwitz High, “the Home of the Nazis”; the cheerleaders should wear brown shirts and the Nazi German swastika flag should fly proudly in the center quad. After all, “it’s just school spirit.”  That drew much outrage and condemnation, with the capper that “this is nothing like that!”  I tried to point out that actually, slavery is kind of like genocide, but in terms of logic, I guess I was the one arguing for a “lost cause.”

What I didn’t know, because they don’t tell you this in Californa History (which is taught in fourth grade, don’t get me started), is that Southern California was kind of a hotbed of Copperhead activity during the Civil War.  Northern California, not so much: oddly appropriate, I guess. More importantly, no one ever told me that the Ku Klux Klan ruled much of Orange County during the 1920s with an iron grip as tight as in the Southern USA.  On holidays, hundreds, if not thousands, of fully robed Klansmen would march through downtown Anaheim, waving American and Confederate flags.

Now, I must say that in the ancient days of my youth, Savanna H.S. was 99 percent white.  There was one black girl who lasted less than a semester.  I wouldn’t have made it that long, if I were her.  There was also a handful of “anglicized” Mexican Americans who kept their heads down and just tried to blend in.  Of course, Savanna has become much more diverse in recent decades, with the explosion of the Latino population and Orange County becoming home to Little Saigon, the biggest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam.

I am a (currently underemployed) public radio journalist in the Los Angeles area.  A few years back, I interviewed the then-principal of my alma mater re: how the Home of the Rebels was dealing with a now-ethnically diverse student body.  The principal, who I believe was Asian American (that’s change we can believe in), told me there were no plans to ditch the Rebels name, but that as uniforms and equipment bearing Confederate logos and colors wore out, they would be replaced by gear with neutral schemes.  I assume the Confederate painting on the gym wall has been painted over.  I don’t know what, if anything, has happened to the statue of the soldier and the two cannons.

I apologize for the length of this response.  But, the N.B. Forrest naming controversy stirred some emotions in me & I wanted to add my perspective from what might be considered an unlikely corner of the southern tier.

- Eric Roy
Venice, CA

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