A long-standing dispute in Jacksonville, Florida has ended with the local school board’s unanimous decision to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. As in other decisions about how to collectively remember the past, these decisions ought to be left to local communities.
The usual voices will cry foul and describe it as another heritage violation, even as they avoid reflecting on the historical context surrounding the initial naming of the school. The name was chosen in 1959 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy following the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate schools. As Aaron Sheehan-Dean noted in an editorial back in 2007 the choice was part of a wider movement against the court’s decision.
The most important date in this controversy is 1958, the year that the School Board commemorated Forrest by naming a school after him. That act came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which required the desegregation of school facilities across the country. Naming a school after Forrest added insult to the injury already done to black Jacksonville residents by the fact of segregated schools. It stands as a parting shot in the debate over access to public education and should be repudiated today.
Forrest has no direct historical connection to Jacksonville, Florida. The choice was no accident. I suspect that it will be fairly easy to decide on a new name that reflects the collective values of the Jacksonville community. Forrest’s claim on the collective memory of this community likely ended long ago.
No, this hasn’t been a good year for Forrest in the South.