We Are a Whole New Generation

Yesterday I posted a video on the Civil War Memory Facebook page about the recent controversy in Jacksonville, Florida concerning Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.  The short documentary tells the story of the steps that one local community college professor took to change the name of the school.  The center of the story is Professor Steve Stoll, who encouraged a couple of his students to take on the project to fulfill a class requirement.  While Stoll claims that at first he simply threw out the idea of doing a survey of the community on the possibility of a name change, his reaction following the school board’s vote [14:30] suggests that he had much more invested in this project.  It became more of a personal crusade as opposed to an academic exercise and one which I find troubling.

The documentary provides more evidence that we are moving beyond the old battle lines of north v. south and white v. black regarding our attitudes toward the symbolism of the Civil War.  Even though the school community is predominantly black they voted not to change the name, not because they  revere Forrest, but because they have other things on their mind [[9:30].  In contrast to Stoll’s agenda and the vote taking by the school board the perspective of the students suggests that these kids are not internalizing these old feuds as part of their own self-identity.  In short, memory of Forrest is a battle ground that engages their parents and grandparents.  The kids have moved on.  [This is an aspect of the story involving the black college students in South Carolina who flew at Confederate battle flag in his window that was missed as well in all the coverage.]

These stories are neither defeats for those who are still fighting these battles nor are they victories for those who style themselves as defenders of Southern Heritage; rather, they point to the extent to which each generation re-negotiates its relationship to the past.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

25 comments… add one
  • London John Jan 23, 2012 @ 13:19

    Also Fort Pillow?

  • Ben Railton Jan 22, 2012 @ 17:16

    Hi Kevin et al,

    I’m late to this conversation, and a lot of interesting stuff has already been said. I certainly agree that the students’ historical perspectives, informed or uninformed or some combination of both, are not necessarily those of any prior generation or community, and that’s a good thing.

    But the bottom line for me is this: this public school is named after the founder (or one of the chief founders) of the KKK. I don’t give a damn who votes or doesn’t vote to keep that name, or how the school board feels, or any other particular community’s perspective–this man helped initiate one of our nation’s most explicitly and definingly terrorist organizations, full stop. Statues and other memorials are one thing, part of our past and identity as we’ve discussed elsewhere here; but the names of public schools are quite another, and I see absolutely no reason why the state or even the federal govt shouldn’t step in and change the name to anything that isn’t explicitly connected to one of our worst national terrorists.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 17:55

      Hi Ben,

      I certainly sympathize with the strong emotions expressed, but I think it’s important to remember that these are things that local communities live with and must examine and debate within a time frame of their own choosing. In my view, intervention on the federal level will accomplish little more than bring about what is a superficial change.

      • Ben Railton Jan 22, 2012 @ 17:58

        Hey Kevin,

        Eh, I don’t think this is just or even primarily local, though. It’s a public high school, and thus part of our federal/national public school system. And Forrest’s terrorist actions had decidedly national effects and meanings (just ask D.W. Griffith!). Obviously the name change doesn’t change the history or even necessarily change any perspectives–but it gets the name of a terrorist off of a public school in 2012 America. Again, can’t really see what could be wrong with that.


        • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 18:07

          I understand it is a public school, but its history is local. My guess is the name will change at some point and in a way that reflects the values of the community.

          • Ben Railton Jan 22, 2012 @ 18:16

            Pre-Point: I know I should just let this particular thread go, but what can I say–Newt’s dog whistles, Tucson, and the widespread resurgence of American racism has me pretty pissed off about all such questions at the moment. Sorry in advance!

            Point: On that “local history,” at least per an article I just found on the school: it was founded as an all-white public school in 1959, meaning it was in violation of federal law; the name was suggested by the Daughters of the Confederacy and voted in that same year; and the school didn’t integrate until 1966. Seems to me that the local history was the same resistance to integration and civil rights that was true of Charlottesville and so much of the South, and that naming a school after a KKK Grand Wizard in the heart of that history is, well, telling. Again, can’t change the history, but can and should change the name, as soon as possible. That’s my take, at least, and I’ll stop commenting now!

  • Woodrowfan Jan 22, 2012 @ 7:52

    I rather like picturing the face of ol’ Nathan if he knew a school named after him was majority African-American.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 8:26

      I rather like the freedom that distance sometimes provides. It allows for just the kind of creative thought that was expressed by the one black student who viewed it as a challenge.

  • Pat Young Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:59

    I can answer my own question. According to the Florida Times Union:
    “The Times-Union received a copy of a March 2007 poll that showed the school’s students were nearly split on the issue. Of 1,029 students surveyed, 53 percent said they wanted to keep the name. Among black students, however, 57 percent wanted to change the name.”

    Roughly 800 students did not vote in the survey.

    This also means that the African American students in the film depicted as supporting keeping the name were a minority of African Americans at the school, although the film focuses on them.

    The school itself was all-white until 1966, certainly within the lifetimes of many of the current students’ parents. Its feeder schools are, according to the sometimes unreliable Wikipedia, JEB Stuart and Jefferson Davis Middle Schools.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 7:06

      Thanks for the link, Pat. The article is interesting on a number of levels.

      Please understand that I am not making an argument as to why the name of the school should be changed or retained. I am simply focusing our attention on the fact that perceptions of the past evolve and that our standard narratives of how these debates play out fail to shed light.

      • Pat Young Jan 22, 2012 @ 7:10

        I understand that. I’m guessing you won’t be naming the first school you found, Nathan Bedford Forrest Elementary.

        Forgive me if I am I overly argumentative. It is an occupational hazard for all lawyers. I really enjoy your approach here.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 7:18

          I really appreciate the give and take. 🙂

  • Pat Young Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:40

    Kevin, you write:
    “The documentary provides more evidence that we are moving beyond the old battle lines of north v. south and white v. black regarding our attitudes toward the symbolism of the Civil War. Even though the school community is predominantly black they voted not to change the name, not because they revere Forrest, but because they have other things on their mind [[9:30]”

    In fact the survey of of the surrounding community showed strong support for the name change. Presumably the school community includes more than just the students. If we assume that many of those surveyed were parents, etc. it seems that the school community was divided or rejected the name Forrest. In addition, the vote on the school board split on racial lines with all five whites supporting keeping the name and both blacks against it. I wonder which of the school board members lived in the catchment area for the high school.

    This seems to be about a lot more than the name of an old KKK leader on some high school. The name of the school was originally planned to be Valhalla until the Brown v Board decision, according to the documentary, when the board decided to show defiance of equality for blacks by naming a school in an area with an African American presence after a slave trader. As one of the students says, this was part of a pattern of taunting blacks that he says continues to this day. While the student says that “growing up in the South” he is used to it, should a governmental entity be the source of such a taunt?

    Also, I’m not sure what to make of the vote of the students to keep the name. The school is only 53% black, which means that a majority of black students could have voted in favor of a name change and that Forrest could still have won out.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:54


      Unless you have additional information, the students decided to keep the name of the school. My observation is that the kids represent a distinct group from the adults in the community unless you can provide additional evidence. Of course, I am only working on the information provided in the video.

      One other point. That the professor got all teary-eyed is of no concern to me. Instead of lamenting on not being able to bring about his desired result, perhaps he should have had his students analyze the data more thoroughly.

      • Pat Young Jan 22, 2012 @ 7:07

        Not sure that I mentioned the professor, teary-eyed or not, at all. But, just for the record, the school board decided to keep the name of the school, the students merely participated in an opinion survey. That a strong majority of non-African American students “voted” to keep the Forrest name over the objections of a majority of African American students does not redeem the decision by the mostly-white school board.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 7:09

          The teary-eyed professor reference was not meant for you – just an additional observation.

          Like I said in my previous response, this post was not meant to redeem anyone. Like the debate over the Confederate flag in Lexington, this is a matter for the local community to sort out. I appreciate the fact that the students were forced to confront the history of the school and I hope their history teachers took advantage of the opportunity.

  • Gordon Belt Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:03

    That hideous statue of Forrest pictured is in my neck of the woods, located just off I-65 in Nashville, but if Jacksonville wants to take credit for it that’s fine with us. It’s a bizarre fiberglass monstrosity that many of us here in Music City would like to see taken down purely for aesthetic purposes…


    • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:13

      I wasn’t trying to make a connection between the two, but thanks for the link. Personally, I love it.

  • Kate Halleron Jan 22, 2012 @ 5:05

    Is it that the kids have moved on, or that their grasp of history is so poor that they don’t know what’s wrong?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 5:10

      Hi Kate,

      I don’t know, but your question seems to imply that their parents’ grasp of history is somehow superior and I reject that assumption

      • Kate Halleron Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:14

        Their parents weren’t subjected to NCLB – so I don’t think it’s an ‘assumption’ that they’re better educated. Given the current state of public education, I think that’s pretty much a given. My impression is that most schools don’t have much time anymore for teaching things that aren’t on The Test.

        Perhaps you have reasons for believing that students today are better educated? I’d be happy to hear them.

        Since neither one of us has spoken to the students, or had the chance to test their knowledge, we’re both reasoning from our own prejudices. I’ve stated mine above – I don’t think I have a grasp what yours are on this issue. Please enlighten.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:22

          Perhaps you have reasons for believing that students today are better educated? I’d be happy to hear them.

          Whether they were subjected to NCLB is irrelevant. Despite the polls and Jay Len’s goofy skits, the evidence is still out on the claim that previous generations were better educated in history than students today.

      • James Harrigan Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:15

        Kevin says: It became more of a personal crusade as opposed to an academic exercise and one which I find troubling.
        Why do you find this troubling, Kevin? I had the opposite reaction – Stoll strikes me as an engaged teacher who cares about his students and the community in which he lives. He fought for something he believes in, got community support, and lost on a racially split vote in the school board. Good for him for trying to make a difference.

        To me the most interesting part of the film was the diverse reactions of the HS students, in particular the young man who said words to the effect of “I live here in the South and I’m used to this sort of thing, and I’m not going to let it bother me”. Probably a healthy coping attitude.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2012 @ 6:19

          Hi James,

          Thanks for the comment. I have absolutely no problem with a teacher taking an interest in his community. What I do have trouble with is taking that interest and introducing into the classroom in the form of a student project. Of course, I don’t know the details surrounding how this project was introduced and evolved within the class.

          I also agree that the responses of the students is what is most interesting, which was the point of the post. Their thoughts take us beyond the standard narrative surrounding the divisiveness of Civil War symbols.

  • Pat Young Jan 22, 2012 @ 4:48

    I can’t see how a parent with a choice could send his or her child to a school with that name.

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