School named after KKK grand wizard to be renamed — finally

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

Following a petition drive that garnered more than 160,000 signatures, a Florida school district will rename a high school whose current name commemorates a Confederate general and the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan.

Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville will soon be known as something else after the community made clear to the Duval County Public School Board that they wanted the school changed. The board voted unanimously Monday night to remove the Forrest name.

How did the school get that name?  When it opened in 1959, an organization called the Daughters of the Confederacy pushed for the Forrest name despite a number of other noncontroversial names that were under discussion, including the student favorite, Valhalla High School. In 2007 the School Advisory Council asked the school board to change the name but it refused by a 5-2 vote. Since then, membership on the panel has changed.

At the school board meeting Monday night, Supt. Nikolai Vitti said:

If you look at the history of the naming of Nathan B. Forrest High School, the students originally wanted the school to be named Valhalla. Politics reigned and as a response to desegregation and the civil rights movement, the school was named Nathan B. Forrest. That was not the will of the students, and considering the opinion of the students in this process, I think it is an opportunity to give voice to students whose voices were not heard in the beginning and can certainly be heard now.

Today, more than half of the school’s students are African American. The Change.org petition to change the name was written by Jacksonville resident 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…

After the petition drive began, an “imperial kaltrop” of the KKK wrote a letter urging the board to keep the name.

I previously published the text of a letter from a woman named Susan Wittenberg Case, who said she was at at the meeting back in 1959 and described what happened. Here it is again:

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.

It looks like Susan Case may get her wish.

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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 16, 2013