‘Forrest’ in School Name Comes Up for Vote Nov. 3

Topher Sanders, Times-Union (Jacksonville, Florida), October 22, 2008

The lingering controversy over whether to drop the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, which celebrates a former Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader, should come to an end early next month.

The Duval County School Board decided Tuesday to vote on the issue at its monthly board meeting on Nov. 3. The meeting is open to the public and will have a public comment period.

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The controversial push to drop the school’s name began nearly two years ago and although board members wouldn’t say Tuesday how they planned to vote, they did say it was time to settle the matter.

“It’s been out there for way too long,” board member Kris Barnes said. “We’re bringing it up again because it hasn’t been dealt with and, to be fair with the public, I think it needs to be dealt with now. And it should be dealt with by the board it came before first.”

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The school’s name has been a spark of contention for years. But it became an official issue in the fall of 2006 when Steven Stoll, a professor of sociology at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, presented his research on Forrest to the School Board. In April 2007, Forrest’s School Advisory Council voted 8-6 to rename it Firestone High, after the street where the school is located.

A 19th century slave trader and planter, Forrest rose through the Confederate army ranks from private to lieutenant general and later became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Critics blamed him for atrocities committed during and after the war, but defenders contest those claims.

“This guy owned and sold human beings and was one of the most successful slave traders in America,” Stoll said. “During the Civil War, he butchered and executed black soldiers in cold blood. And after the Civil War, he became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and instituted segregation in the south.”

Bodie Catlin, owner of a truck accessories retailer who speaks publicly about Confederate history, has been an outspoken supporter of keeping the school’s name and said Forrest was a man of his time who was “nice” to his slaves.

“They loved him,” he said. “The only people [in favor of the name change] are people from the North who don’t care about our heritage and some that think the whole war was fought over slavery.”

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Pratt-Dannals did warn, though, that dropping school names because of the actions of historical figures could become a slippery slope. Defenders have said schools named after Jeff Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee could come under fire, too.

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