By Jamescia Thomas
A Florida school board has agreed to begin considering whether to change the name of a primarily black high school named for the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan and Confederate Army General, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
A petition started on Change.org by Omotayo Richmond challenged the Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville. So far the petition has garnered over 160,000 signatures from across the nation.
Omotayo Richmond has a daughter in the Duval County Public School system and says he would not allow his daughter to attend the high school honoring the name of the Klansman.
“It just wouldn’t happen,” Richmond said. “I believe it’s outrageous that this could even be questioned by anybody … that anybody could even come to the defense of this man.”
Richmond said he never expected for the petition to get as much attention as it did, but he is glad that many have become aware of the cause.
“I am very encouraged that [people] chose to support this cause and I am humbled by that and excited for change,” Richmond said.
But according to Marsha Oliver, the communications chief for the Duval County School District, a petition on Change.org will have no impact on whether the district will change the school’s name, because a name change proposal must come from the community and the final decision rests with the school board members.
This isn’t the first time community members in Jacksonville tried to change the name of the high school.
In 2007, Florida State College at Jacksonville professor Lance Stoll and a group of his students went into the community with surveys asking residents whether they would prefer that the name of the high school be changed. According to Stoll, the vast majority of the more than 6000 responses they received favored changing the school’s name.
Two days after Stoll presented the information to the Duval County Public Schools Board at a board meeting, the board voted 5-2 to keep the high school’s name. Stoll said he had thought the name change would be approved because so many Jacksonville residents supported it, but was surprised that the board voted along racial lines. Two black members of the school board voted to change the name while the other five white members chose to keep it, he said.
But this time the effort feels much different than in 2007, because of Richmond’s petition and the enormous number of people backing their cause, said Stoll, who is a member of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, the group behind changing the name of the high school.
“This had lain dormant for the last several years. Why should we honor racism anywhere at any time?” Stoll said. “We don’t want 60 percent of the kids, black kids going to a school named for somebody who would’ve killed them and enslaved them if he had the chance.”
Jacksonville Progressive Coalition members have knocked on doors, set up booths in open air markets, gone to the school’s homecoming game and worked through the entire community passing out surveys. They have collected nearly 2,000 surveys from the community and 92 percent of those respondents approve changing the name, Stoll said.
At the Duval County School Board meeting Tuesday evening, at least three dozen supporters showed up to voice their support for changing the high school’s name, but there were also those who advocated that the name should remain.
“There were some awful gasps on both sides,” said Mike Stovall, a member of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition. “Clearly people are on very different sides of the issue.”
Supporters of keeping the name have cited that Nathan B. Forrest is a part of Southern history and tradition, and said he is being made into a monster that he wasn’t.
“Forrest, the man, and his association with the KKK is history. The KKK’s function was much different in his time than it is now,” said Alison Barwick, a 1979 graduate and current volunteer of the high school. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find any Southern gentleman from that era that didn’t have some association with the Klan.”
Barwick also said the school has bigger issues to tackle and renaming the high school would be a waste of funds that could be used in more effective areas for the school.
“First, and foremost, there’s no money for programs like band or drama,” Barwick said. “Funding for anything deemed non-essential doesn’t exist. If there’s no money in the budget for things that really do benefit the students and the community how is there money available to fund a name change?”
But it wasn’t until board member Connie Hall, who represents the district that includes N.B. Forrest High School, submitted a letter formally requesting the school be re-named that the board decided to address the issue head-on in a special meeting that was held on Friday.
“We kind of won a battle in what’s going to kind of be a big war,” Mike Stovall said.
At that meeting, all seven school board members voted to start the process for changing the name. In a statement released on the school board’s website, Duval County Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he understands the controversy over the school’s name.
“There has been a tremendous amount of community and national interest in the Forrest High School name,” Vitti said. “We recognize and respect the views expressed about N.B. Forrest and will adhere to board policies and procedures throughout this process.”
But starting the re-naming process for the school doesn’t actually mean that the name of the school will change. According to school district policy, the superintendent now must gather input from the School Advisory Council, the PTA, current students and alumni, along with others in the community. Then the board will review the information and vote on the issue.
District spokeswoman Marsha Oliver said it is unlikely this information will be gathered and prepared in time for the next school board meeting, meaning that there will not likely be a vote on whether to change the name of the high school held this year.