JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Nathan Bedford Forrest was a millionaire slave trader, a ruthless Confederate general, an early Ku Klux Klan leader – and the namesake of what is now a majority African-American high school.
After almost a two-year delay, the Duval County School Board next week will consider whether to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School to Firestone High, after the street it sits on. The board joins other Southern districts that have hotly debated whether to strip Confederate leaders’ names from schools and other buildings.
The squabble is part of the modern South’s never-ending soul searching over the Civil War and its legacy, a discussion that often finds Forrest at the center.
“This guy was a brutal monster,” said Steven Stoll, an adjunct sociology professor at Florida Community College who supports changing the name of the high school. “Why would you want to keep honoring a person like this? It is an insult to black people.”
Forrest is hardly the lone Confederate hero whose name adorns streets, buildings and other public projects, or used to. For instance, Robert E. Lee High School in Birmingham, Ala., became Martin Luther King High School.
Still, efforts to strip Confederates’ names and take down memorials to them have mostly been thwarted throughout the South, often after being denounced as part of an effort to remove all references to the Confederacy. In Hampton, Va., for example, attempts to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School and Jefferson Davis Middle School failed.
Some say Forrest’s deeds have been exaggerated and have to be considered in context.
“Forrest was revered all over the world and his tactics are still studied today,” said Lee Millar, president of the General N.B. Forrest Historical Society in Memphis, Tenn. “He became a hero to all.”
Some accounts accuse Forrest of ordering black prisoners to be massacred after a victory at Tennessee’s Fort Pillow in 1864, though historians question the validity of the claims.
“He did not order a massacre. He did order wholesale killing, but I do believe he lost control of the battle and there were people killed who should not have been killed,” said Brian Steel Wills, a professor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, who wrote a biography of Forrest.
Forrest High School in Jacksonville opened as an all-white school in the 1950s, getting its name at the suggestion of the Daughters of the Confederacy. They saw it as a protest of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eventually integrated the nation’s public schools.
Now, blacks make up more than half of the student body.
Two 17-year-old seniors at the school say the consensus among students is to leave the name alone.
“As students, (the name is) not a big deal to us,” said Jamal Freeman, a black student, who noted it would cost a lot to change uniforms for the band and sports teams, nicknamed the Rebels.
“He got a bad rap,” said L.A. Hardee, a member of the board at Jacksonville’s Museum of Southern History. “He was an honorable man. People don’t take into consideration the times. It’s a Southern thing. They ought to keep the name.”