KKK asks panel to keep school named after ‘grand wizard’ of white-supremacist group

Nathan Bedford Forrest (nps.gov)
Nathan Bedford Forrest (nps.gov)

Here’s the latest in the you-can’t-make-up-this-stuff story about a school in Florida that is still named after the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan. A current “imperial kaltrop” of the KKK has written a letter to members of the Duval County School Board urging them not to change the name this week when they meet to discuss the issue.

The school is Nathan B. Forrest High School and, as I wrote in this recent post, a petition with nearly 120,000 names on change.org is asking the Florida school district to change the name. Back in April 2007, when the school board was asked by the School Advisory Council to change the name, the panel voted 5-2 against it, but there are new members on the panel now.

Why is the school named after a KKK grand wizard? When it opened in 1959, a number of names were suggested but an organization called the Daughters of the Confederacy somehow won the day with Nathan B. Forrest, who was a Confederate  general in the Civil War and the first  “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan. Now, more than half of the school’s students are African American. You can read below a description of that 1959 meeting from someone who was there.

The school board is planning to meet Thursday to discuss changing the name, and the  Florida Times-Union newspaper obtained a letter that a current KKK leader wrote to members of the school board, urging them not to change the name at the Jacksonville school. The letter urges the board to take a “decisive stand to protect the name of the school.”

The board is more likely to change the name than preserve it.

The change.org petition was written by a man named Omotayo Richmond, who wrote in part:

I moved to Jacksonville from Long Island 12 years ago. Since then, I’ve put down roots here. I’ve helped raise a beautiful daughter here. This place is my home now, and the people who live here deserve better than a high school named for the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

 

That’s right, Jacksonville is home to Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, named in honor of a Confederate general who infamously slaughtered Black Union soldiers who’d already surrendered and who was a founding member of the original Ku Klux Klan. The school got its name in 1959, when white civic leaders wanted to protest a court decision that called for integrating public schools.

 

I don’t want my daughter, or any student, going to a school named under those circumstances. This is a bad look for Florida — with so much racial division in our state, renaming Forrest High would be a step toward healing…

The KKK letter, which you can read here, was written by someone identified as “Imperial Kaltrop, K Trio, Traditionalist American Knights of The Ku Klux Klan. There are three initials above the name, the first two being D.C. and the last being either a a W or an N. The Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK is a white-supremacy group. The letter says in part:

It is true and no secret that Nathan Bedford Forrest was appointed first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and carried out his duties as the office demanded of him. What is never taught or reported on in the mainstream media is how or why there was a need for the Klan or ‘Ku Klux’ as it was originally called. Many say it was to deny the newly emancipated blacks of their rights, and I am sure that there were some men who embraced that concept, but the Klan was born primarily as a fraternity and quickly evolved into a group of vigilance to protect defenseless southerners from criminal activities perpetrated against them by Yankee carpet baggers, scalawags, and many bestial blacks and other criminal elements out for revenge or just taking part in criminal mischief.

The Times-Union quotes Jason Fischer, the Duval County School Board member who scheduled Thursday’s meeting, as saying that when he saw the letter, his reaction was to “burn it and wash my hands.”

Meanwhile, after I wrote the first post about this issue, I got an e-mail from a woman named Susan Wittenberg Case, who said she was at at the meeting back in 1959 and described what happened. Here’s what she said:

Your short article about this petition couldn’t begin to explain the controversy surrounding the naming of this school in the fall of 1959. The school opened without a name and we were packed in like sardines from 7th through 12th grades. I and my brother were in the 7th and 8th grade and we were so excited to learn that we students were going to choose the name of the school, the colors, and the football team’s name. A vigorous campaign ensued with proposed names being put up on the board and lively discussions taking place. I remember one proposed name was “Oak Lawn” and the team could be the “Acorns.” That name died a well-deserved death, however, when it was pointed out that Oak Lawn was a more appropriate name for a cemetery or a nursing home.

 

The name that captivated us all and won hands-down was Valhalla High. The team name was the Vikings and colors were orange and white. The boys all liked the idea of the great and fearless Viking warriors and we girls were enthralled with the idea that Valhalla was the name for the Viking heaven. The football jerseys had all been ordered, signs were going up, supplies ordered, logos printed. We were all excitedly awaiting the first game of the season in our brand new junior-senior high school.

 

A meeting was called and when my parents returned that night I can still see their angry faces. My mother could barely contain her scorn and outrage as she described how the UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy)had pushed through their own agenda to rename MY school after the slave-running drunkard and Ku Klux Klan leader, Nathan Forrest. The team name was the Rebels, and colors were red and grey. We even had a flag now, the old confederate cross. Officially, the school was now General Nathan Bedford Forrest Junior-Senior High School.

 

Everyone was in an uproar. You should know that many, many of the students were from military families, as I was, and our identity was to the United States primarily, and not to the failed Confederacy or to the south in general. But even the “civilian” kids were angry. We all felt betrayed. We WERE betrayed. Our vote and voice had been stripped away and something really ugly had been inflicted upon us. It took a long time to feel any sense of loyalty to the school and all these years later, I still have contempt for the old biddies of the UDC.

 

I’d still like to see the name Valhalla resurrected somehow. Valhalla High Vikings has a nice ring to it. But then, what about all the peoples that were terrorized by those fierce sea-faring Norsemen? *sigh* Okay, Oak Lawn it is, then.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 2, 2013