Two Duval County high schools are caught in conflict over their controversial namesakes
The Bold New City of the South is still clinging to its Confederate heritage 148 years after the Civil War ended, with a new controversy over the naming of two high schools after well-known Confederate generals.
Two distinct groups are working to see the names of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee removed from the two predominantly black high schools.
Neither of the schools is new. Forrest has been on the Westside since 1959, and Lee has been a learning institution for 85 years. The original plans called for Forrest to be named Valhalla, but the Daughters of the Confederacy asked that it be named in honor of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, who never entered Jacksonville city limits.
The effort to rename schools in the New South is not without precedent, including some name changes in Memphis, Tenn., in February. A park featuring a statue of Forrest astride a horse has been renamed, from Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park. The Memphis City Council also renamed Confederate Park to Memphis Park, and a park in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was renamed Mississippi River Park, according to an Associated Press report.
The issue of renaming Forrest High School came up again five years ago at a lengthy and contentious Duval County School Board meeting. Supporters of the name change said the current name reflected badly on the city and the school system, to have a high school named after a former slave trader, war criminal and former head of the Ku Klux Klan. Those opposing the name change argued that it was hard to separate truth from fiction when it came to knowing who the real Forrest was.
But now, Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has refueled the fire. He said publicly he'd support a name change for Forrest High School if the issue came from the community.
"I was alarmed that a name which could evoke such polarizing views and emotions was used to name a school," Vitti said in a July 8 interview on public radio station WJCT.
School Board Chairman Fred "Fel" Lee said the board has not yet received any requests for a school name change, and it follows a policy that guides its work.
"The selection and renaming of schools are no exception as we follow an established policy that requires us to consider alternative names when brought forth by a school community," he said.
Calls and emails to the Kirby-Smith Chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy were not returned.
Both high schools are predominantly black. At Lee, 63.1 percent of the school's 1,916 students are black, and Forrest has a black population of 59.4 percent of its 1,352 students, based on projections of this year's student bodies provided by Marsha Oliver, a spokesperson for the school system.
Brandon Kirsch, a dermatology resident at Mayo Clinic Florida, who just moved to Northeast Florida after growing up in Toronto, started an online petition seeking to gather support to change the name of Lee High School.
Shortly after moving to Jacksonville in June, Kirsch said he met a black girl who attended Lee and he found the name "surprising and distressing."
So far, response to his petition has been almost nonexistent, with fewer than 20 signatures. One signer, listed as anonymous, wrote, "The name Robert E. Lee represents a self-proclaimed general who LOST an (un)Civil War that killed 600,000 Americans! Please put America first, not the damn, rag tag confederacy, rename this school for someone who did great things for Jacksonville, like former Mayor Hans Tanzler." Tanzler, mayor during the consolidation of the Jacksonville and the Duval County governments, died July 25.
Thomas Pumphrey and his family have a long connection to Lee High School. He graduated in 1951. His wife graduated in 1955. His children all graduated from Lee. His grandchildren graduated from Lee. His brother and his wife graduated from Lee, as did their three children.
When he heard about the petition drive to change the name, Pumphrey said, "It kind of incensed me."
It was his family heritage — not Lee's Confederate background — that interests Pumphrey.
"I don't want to fight the Civil War. I am an American, not a Confederate."
When Pumphrey heard that Kirsch had come here from Canada, he said, "I label him a carpetbagger."
"We are not a bunch of rebels, but we don't want other people ruffling our feathers," Pumphrey said.
Kirsch said he is Jewish and would be offended if he had been forced to attend a school named after a Nazi general.
"It would be offensive to me if I was black," Kirsch said. "It would be hard to stomach."
"It doesn't look good for the city to have schools named like this," said Kirsch, who was unaware of the fact that Nathan Bedford Forrest High School was also named for a Confederate general.
Steven Lance Stoll, who teaches sociology at several area colleges, said the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition would begin collecting surveys starting in late August to change the name of Forrest High School. He hopes to present them to the School Board by Oct. 1.
Five years ago, Stoll's group collected more than 5,661 surveys; of those, 3,249 supported the name change. He believes he'll be successful this year with a change in administration and an entirely new School Board.
At that time, there were suggestions to modify the spelling of the general's last name, making it Forest. Others suggested naming the school after one of its most famous graduates, Navy pilot Scott Speicher, who was killed after his plane was shot down on the first night of the Gulf War with Iraq.
Stoll believes school officials erred in naming it after Forrest, noting it was a protest to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling to desegregate schools. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) recommended the Forrest name when the school opened in 1959.
JoAnne French Anderson, who graduated from Forrest in 1964, said she's aware of Nathan Forrest's background, but doesn't believe the name of the high school should change.
"I am not for it. History is what it is. You can't change history," she said.
"Forrest wasn't a good guy, but neither was Sherman," Anderson said, referring to Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, known for his "scorched earth" policy of destroying Southern homes, businesses and farms in his army's bloody march from Atlanta to Savannah.
Forrest was a slave trader who was believed to be responsible for the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864, at Henning, Tenn., and he had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, Stoll said.
"He was not just another Confederate general," Stoll said. "This guy was very bad. This guy is America's Osama Bin Laden."
Mary Maraghy, a teacher at Nathan B. Forrest High School, said, "I'm sick of this debate. Can't believe it's coming up again. It would expensive to change."
Courtney P. Carney, a professor and expert on Forrest at Stephen F. Austin State College in Nacogdoches, Texas, said Forrest, as a general was responsible for the massacre of black soldiers at Fort Pillow and as one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, is frequently debated.
"In Jacksonville, what was the reason for naming the school after Forrest, as he had no clear ties to the area? Should the city take a closer look at the original reasons for using his name on a high school during the time of massive retaliation against desegregation?" Carney asked. "Ultimately, the people of Jacksonville should decide if Forrest is the best representatives of the city today as opposed to 1959."
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said Forrest's bad reputation is well-earned.
"The bottom line is that he was a brutal thug. He was a millionaire slave trader, war criminal and the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan."
"He would often get so angry, he transformed into a beast," Potok said. "Forrest was dramatically worse than Robert E. Lee. Nathan Bedford Forrest made Lee look like a saint."
"It is a particularly good idea to remove the Forrest name. The man was a homicidal bully," Potok said.
Lee and Forrest are not the only Confederate generals with schools named after them in Duval County. J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson both have elementary schools named after them. Edmund Kirby Smith and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, have middle schools named for them.
The city also has a number of schools named for African-American icons such as Martin Luther King, James Weldon Johnson and A. Philip Randolph.