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.
Well, if you attended high school in Jacksonville, Florida (of all places) after 1959 you probably did. How did a high school in Florida end up being named after a Confederate general from Tennessee? It turns out that when the school opened in 1959 various interest groups, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy, competed to win the chance to name the school. The UDC won and the school was named for Nathan B. Forrest. It was an ideal name for a school in the South at the height of “Massive Resistance” against a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
On November 3 the Duval County School Board will vote on whether to change the name of the school. Of course, not everyone is happy about such a possibility given their commitment to ensure that our youth model their lives on such upstanding Americans as Forrest:
Bodie Catlin, owner of a truck accessories retailer who speaks publicly about Confederate history, has been an outspoken supporter of keeping the school’s name and said Forrest was a man of his time who was “nice” to his slaves.
“They loved him,” he said. “The only people [in favor of the name change] are people from the North who don’t care about our heritage and some that think the whole war was fought over slavery.”
It’s always those damn northerners who are getting in the way. Stay tuned for further updates.
I came across this interesting article on the changing face of the Lee County Courthouse in Mississippi. The Coalition for Change is scheduled to unveil a rendering of the estimated $7,000 civil rights monument to the Lee County Board of Supervisors in early September. The author apparently did her homework and interviewed two authorities on the changing face of southern history and the courthouse in particular:
Charles Reagan Wilson, former director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and current Cook Chair of History at the University of Mississippi
The courthouse is a physical and symbolic anchoring for the sense of community in the South. It’s a place of stability and common meeting ground. The Confederate monuments were placed on town squares for exactly that reason. In the old days, whites wanted those Confederate monuments there to recognize the importance of the Civil War experience to the South, so it’s the same reason you want to put a civil rights monument there.
James Hull, Coalition for Change Spokesman
The civil rights movement is also heritage. It’s also history. It’s the blood, sweat and tears of those who tried to bring the city together. We are going to recognize that.
John Marszalek, Mississippi State University’s Giles distinguished professor emeritus of history
What’s happening actually – and in the South particularly – it’s no secret that it was a place of Jim Crow-ism until the 1960s, so any memorialization of history was done so from the white point of view. With the civil rights movement, blacks began to vote and elect black officials, so for the past 25
years there have been more successful attempts to present not just the white perspective on the history of the South but to include the role blacks have played.
I recently reread and highly recommend Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920.
Students show Senator Obama a display on the US Civil War and slavery at the Mapleton
Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton, Colorado May 28, 2008.