JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A Florida school board has decided to end a decades-long controversy and rename a high school now named for a Confederate general and honorary Ku Klux Klan leader that some historical records say ordered the execution of hundreds of black Union soldiers.
The Duval County School Board said it was following the will of its students Monday when it voted unanimously to change the name of Nathan B. Forrest High in Jacksonville. The change will take place next year once a new name is chosen, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
“What I want is for students at Nathan Bedford Forrest to use this as a civics lesson,” Vitti said. He said he hopes students realize that they can make a difference.
Vitti said a majority of students surveyed voiced support for dropping Forrest’s name, given his history as a slave trader and some accounts that blame him for issuing an order to execute captured black Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Vitti said he will now conduct a survey to decide the school’s new name. The school board is expected to decide the new name early next year.
“Everybody is glad about it,” De’jia Boatwright, a 15-year old 10th grader at the school.
About half of the faculty and a majority of alumni surveyed disagreed with the name change, but 64 percent of students at the black-majority high school were in favor of dropping the name. The school board said it based its decision on what the students wanted.
The name of the school has been a source of controversy for decades, with school officials continuously refusing to change it despite numerous protests.
Forrest High opened as an all-white school in the 1950s. Its name was suggested by the Daughters of the Confederacy, who saw it as a protest to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eventually integrated the nation’s public schools.
Born poor in Chapel Hill, Tenn., in 1821, Forrest amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader, importing Africans long after the practice had been made illegal. At 40, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate army at the outset of the Civil War, rising to a cavalry general in a year.
Some accounts said Forrest ordered black prisoners to be massacred after a victory at Tennessee’s Fort Pillow in 1864, though historians question the validity of the claims.
In 1867, the newly formed Klan elected Forrest its honorary Grand Wizard or national leader, but he publicly denied being involved. In 1869, he ordered the Klan to disband because of the members’ increasing violence. Two years later, a congressional investigation concluded his involvement had been limited to his attempt to disband it.
After his death in 1877, memorials to him sprung up throughout the South.
Opponents of the name change told the school board said the name change is a waste of money, based on history that may be inaccurate.
“This issue happened 150 years ago,” said Jim Taylor, a 1978 Forrest graduate. “We have to move on. Let the issue go . if you guys change the name, this could be a waste of taxpayer money.”
The Florida Times-Union quoted Vitti as saying it will cost about $400,000 to change the name on signs, sports uniforms and the gym floor.
Proponents of the name change said the issue would not go away until the board agreed to it.
“If you do not, this issue will come back again and again and again,” said Audrey Moran, a former prosecutor and mayoral chief of staff.
Keith Ivey, a 1990 Forrest graduate, told board members than when he played in the school band nearly 25 years ago, several members sat down and refused to participate in the school’s traditional song, “Dixie,” which the band played every time its football team, the Forrest Rebels, scored a touchdown.
“It does carry a black cloud over the city of Jacksonville,” Ivey said.
The removal of the names of key Confederate figures, some of whom participated in the early days of the Ku Klux Klan, is trending through the South and other parts of the country.
For years, communities have been trying, sometimes successfully, to change names of schools, parks and other facilities because they represented Confederate leaders and ideals.
In Memphis, Tenn., the City Council voted in February to change a local park’s name from Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park, though a statue of Bedford on a horse remains. It also voted to rename Confederate Park as Memphis Park and Jefferson Davis Park as Mississippi River Park.
In Lee County, Fla., NAACP officials have been lobbying for years to change the county’s name because it was named for Gen. Robert E. Lee, considered the leading Confederate general of the Civil War, but city officials have refused the request.