Climaxing the latest chapter in an argument that has lasted for more than a quarter-century, the School Advisory Council at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School voted Monday night to recommend changing the school’s name.
The 8-6 vote to change the name is nonbinding. The issue will now go before the Duval County School Board.
At Monday night’s meeting, which was attended by about 35 people, many wearing name tags identifying themselves as supporters of the current school name, no comments from the public were allowed.
One member of the SAC, James Colwell, a Forrest parent, made a passionate appeal to change the name, arguing that the school’s namesake is too closely associated with the Ku Klux Klan, which some accounts credit him with founding.
“Is that the association you want the school to have?” Colwell asked.
Forrest, who rose through the ranks to become a Confederate general, has long been a controversial figure. Besides having been involved with the KKK, Forrest was a slave trader before the war and has been accused of allowing his men to massacre black Union soldiers during the 1864 capture of Fort Pillow. As with Forrest’s role in the KKK, his responsibility for what happened at Fort Pillow has been the subject of debate.
Forrest’s name was originally chosen for the Westside high school in 1959, at a time when many Southern school boards were digging in their heels against the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision ordering school desegregation.
Although there was no reported debate in choosing the name Forrest over Valhalla, the original choice, controversy over the name has flared several times over the last quarter-century. It became an issue again last fall when Steven Stoll, an adjunct social science professor at Jacksonville University, began campaigning for a name change.
Supporters of the Forrest name, such as businessman Bodie Catlin, who came to the meeting toting a huge notebook devoted to the issue, argue that Forrest was a great military tactician, a man of his times, and, near the end of his life, he reconciled with black Americans.
Todd Thompson came to the meeting carrying a proposal to place a plaque at the school entrance quoting from an 1875 speech in which Forrest told a largely black audience: “We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color but not in sentiment.”
Thompson argued that changing the name “will only offend a different group of people.”