Until 2013, Omotayo Richmond didn’t consider himself an activist. But he could not stomach the idea of his African-American daughter becoming a Rebel at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida.
The more he delved into the history of Forrest, the more astonished Richmond became that the school still had the man’s name above its doors. Forrest may have been one of the great cavalry commanders of the Civil War, but he had also made his living as a slave trader before enlisting; furthermore, he was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Soldiers under Forrest’s command were also stained with one of the most notorious atrocities of the war, the 1864 massacre of surrendering Union troops—many of them black—at Tennessee’s Fort Pillow.
Naming the school after Forrest may not have raised any eyebrows at the 1959 opening of the whites-only school, but times had changed. By the time Richmond was looking ahead to his daughter’s enrollment, the student body was nearly 60 percent African American.
Richmond was not the first to propose the school change its name. However, he was the first to effectively harness the power of social media. He posted a petition on Change.org: “Duval Public Schools: No More KKK High School.” National and international media outlets quickly picked up the story.
Names That Send a Message
School names can be subtle yet powerful symbols, say sociologists who have studied the place of school names in community culture. As a rule, communities seek to honor historical figures as a way to communicate identity and values to the students inside, the surrounding community and even outsiders.
This has often presented jarring cultural and social rifts in states of the former Confederacy. As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s, many white-controlled communities consciously named public buildings after (usually) men who held segregationist beliefs and ties to white supremacist groups. Due to the timing, the intent can be interpreted as both an effort to reassure white supremacists and remind African Americans of their “proper place” in the social hierarchy.
“When you choose a name like Nathan Bedford Forrest for a school, it’s clear what value you’re wanting to uphold at that particular moment in time,” says Leslie Harris, associate professor of history and African American studies at Atlanta’s Emory University. “You’re sending a message—it’s not even a subtle message.”
For students and staff of color, the lasting message has been that they must accept a culture that disrespects and denigrates them, that they are second-class citizens. Citizens like Richmond, though, are no longer willing to leave that message unchallenged, especially in places of education. They want their children to attend schools with values and symbols that safeguard their kids’ sense of self, safety and inclusion rather than reinforce exclusion and subjugation. Updating a school’s name can be a step toward that goal.
What’s in a Name?
To many Southern whites with Confederate roots, the men honored by these school names were nothing less than founding fathers, whether they distinguished themselves in the war, led their communities in the decades afterward or both. Criticisms based on the fact that these individuals owned slaves or participated in the Ku Klux Klan have routinely been dismissed as irrelevant since the men were “products of their time.” In the 1920s, for example, it would be difficult to find a white Southerner of means without some link to the Klan—its membership was estimated at some 140,000 in Alabama alone. The “Invisible Empire” was a primary source of political power, and its influence reached into every strata of white society.
However, that does not mean the names of Confederate colonels and Klan leaders are some romantic leftover of the “Lost Cause.” Like the popularization of the Confederate battle flag in the 1950s, the names were often proposed and approved in response to 20th-century challenges to Jim Crow policies. Nathan Bedford Forrest High, for example, was named following Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that signaled the ending of sanctioned school segregation. This record casts doubt on apologists’ claims that the names were chosen solely for their contributions to Southern heritage.
“The question becomes: What do we do with these figures?” says Harris. “They are historically important, but we don’t uphold their values anymore.”
For students and staff of color, the lasting message has been that they must accept a culture that disrespects and denigrates them, that they are second-class citizens.
Values may have shifted, but the controversy exists now; and it is a debate that different sides see through vastly different cultural prisms. For many white Southerners, efforts to change place names honoring their forefathers are viewed as attempts to revise the past, erasing the good along with the regrettable in the region’s complex, contentious history. For many African Americans, changing the names is a chance to close one more wound from a history of mistreatment and brutality.
Offense vs. Harm
While some whites may be saddened or offended if a school’s name changes, students of color are likely to experience harm if it doesn’t. That is the conclusion of sociological research into the effects of school environments replete with symbols devaluing one group. “The naming of a school in honor of an individual has a special significance, creating an overt association between the person and the community,” writes Roger Stump, professor emeritus of geography at the State University of New York at Albany. “The act is essentially hortatory, calling on the community to follow the path set by the school’s namesake.”
For African-American students, entering a school named for a founder of the Ku Klux Klan following “the path” is unspeakable. “When students of color walked through those doors [at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School], they entered an inherently hostile environment,” says sociologist Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo is an associate professor of critical multicultural and social justice education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. She also leads anti-racism workshops across the country. “It triggers internalized oppression for students. That is the bottom line.”
In fits and starts, activists for racial justice have been working to change that dynamic by replacing names burdened with racist connotations. In the 1990s, for example, public school officials in New Orleans—where student populations are overwhelmingly African American—made a sweeping decision to rename buildings honoring former slaveholders “or others who did not respect opportunity for all.” This included a controversial choice to change George Washington Elementary to Dr. Charles Drew Elementary to honor the pioneering African-American surgeon and blood specialist.
In contrast, the renaming of Nathan Bedford Forrest High was years in the making. In 2007, the Duval County School board rejected a petition to replace the name, voting 5-2 along racial lines. Six years later, the board’s makeup had changed, and Richmond’s Change.org petition began wracking up signatures, eventually exceeding 160,000 from around the world.
A large majority of the school’s alumni disapproved of changing the name of their alma mater, and the school board made it clear that Richmond’s petition had no official sway. However, more than half of the surrounding community did support the change. Their position was ironically bolstered by a public letter from a Missouri chapter of the Ku Klux Klan encouraging the board to retain the name. Siding with an active Klan group wasn’t a position the board was enthusiastic to take. In the end, they voted unanimously to give their school a new name and the beginnings of a new identity.
“We recognize that we cannot and are not seeking to erase history,” board member Constance Hall said in a statement. “For too long and too many, this name has represented the opposite of unity, respect and equality.”
The school is now known simply as Westside High School, with Wolverines replacing Rebels as their mascot. Still, the Confederacy’s legacy in the district and community is at no risk of being lost. One feeder middle school is named for Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart, the other for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Mississippi native and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” In former Confederate states, there may be no clearer example than the controversies that swirl around the names of schools and other public places. In a region that takes pride in never surrendering its past, though, the voices of the present and future are slowly having their due.
Teaching and Learning the Controversy
Throughout the United States, thousands of public schools, parks, streets and university buildings carry the names of prominent figures in local, state and national history. These places can be here-and-now opportunities for educators and students to connect the past to the present in their communities. Done as multimedia presentations, such projects can become inspiring, hands-on, real-world lessons in the relevance of history in students’ lives. For schools named for racist or otherwise problematic individuals, such history projects can support campaigns to bring about change. Here are suggestions to guide educators and students as they investigate controversial figures and events.
Start with the facts.
Encourage students to suspend judgment and assemble the facts—the who, what, when, where and why surrounding the original naming and the name-change debate. Have them pay special attention to words that signal bias, in their own analysis as well as in research materials. Be alert to the tendency—especially in young people—to jump to judgment on emotionally charged subjects, then assemble anecdotes and evidence to support their position.
Anticipate opposing points of view.
The ability to take the perspective of another person builds empathy and makes for a more honest, sophisticated investigation and final product.
Pay attention to rhetoric when making a case.
Conviction is important in activism. However, best practices in conflict management indicate opponents and decision-makers are less defensive when presented with firm, reasoned appeals instead of passionate demands and accusations.
“Learning this history [of slavery and segregation] doesn’t have to be disempowering,” says Professor Leslie Harris. Harris directed a five-year program called the Transforming Community Project in which Emory University students, faculty and staff confronted the Atlanta school’s own race history. “One of the fears was that if we talked about this, it might cause participants to disconnect from the institution. We found the opposite was true.”