Duval County Public Schools is considering a name change for Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Fla. The school is named for a Confederate hero who was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan — and after five decades of debate, there appears to be momentum for change.
The long-simmering controversy was reignited this year when Jacksonville resident Omotayo Richmond posted a petition on Change.org, urging the district superintendent to change the name. He started gathering signatures because his family was moving across town, where his fiancee's daughter would attend Forrest High School.
"I didn't think it would make a huge wave like it did," Richmond says. "At the most, I figured if I got a couple hundred people to sign it, I could have enough leverage that I could go to the school board and be like, 'Hey, what are you guys going to do about this?' "
To date, the petition has garnered more than 160,000 signatures — enough to catch the attention of the school board and the Klan itself. A Missouri-based chapter of the KKK sent a letter to the board encouraging it to reject a name change.
At a Duval County School Board meeting this week, the naming debate was the subject of several dozen passionate speeches. Civil War buffs call Forrest a military genius. Some claim modern critics have distorted the facts about his involvement with the Klan.
Barbie Langdon Ratliff, Forrest High Class of 1976, was one of several alumni to speak in support of keeping the name.
"We'll never know everything about Mr. Forrest, but the speeches that I've read and the attendance at his funeral by hundreds of African-Americans lead me to believe he was not the racist monster that the media would lead us to believe that he was," Ratliff told the board.
Others, including Opio Sokoni, the president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, argued that honoring Forrest sends the wrong message at a school that is now majority African-American.
"Our children and our city deserve better than to have a school named after this immoral man," Sokoni said. "He had no connection to this city and his name was placed on the school out of spite."
Those who remember say the 1959 school board chose to honor Forrest at the behest of the Daughters of the Confederacy, as a statement against school desegregation.
Six years ago, the Duval County School Board voted 5-2, along racial lines, to keep the name. The new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, says he's in favor of a change — but, he says, the board needs to get community buy-in first. On Friday, the School Board is scheduled to vote on whether to officially start the process of exploring a new name.
"When I speak nationally and people stop me, the first thing they say is, 'Don't you have a high school named after a former leader of the KKK?' " Vitti says. "And I want Jacksonville to be known for what we're doing regarding children's outcomes, not the name of a school."