JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - For those who came to Duval’s school board to make their final plea ahead of a vote on changing Nathan B. Forrest High School’s name- it was a split divide on history.
Not just the history of Nathan Bedford Forrest, but of students who have graduated the school that holds his name.
Forrest is a Confederate General who is believed to be a former member, and likely leader, of the KKK. The concern surrounding his history re-surfaced in full force just over one month ago when, in response to some community concerns, the school board member for the district, Dr. Constance Hall, requested a formal review.
Over that span of time the community, graduates, students, faculty and more were polled and asked for their input on whether the name should be changed. The poll results released Monday night show an overwhelming majority of alum- 94%- were opposed to the change while 64% of current students wanted a new name.
“This issue has led to a divide in our community,” says Duval County Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
"He was a born-again Christian after the war, and spent the last years of his life working for social and economic equality for black folks," Bill Gunnarson from the Southside tells WOKV. "I just regret what they're doing to his memory. His story should be one of redemption, not of the Ku Klux Klan."
Kenyatta Malcom says the decision is long overdue. "This is something I wanted years ago when I went to school, and we've been revisiting this," she says. "This is progress for Jacksonville. It's time for a change. We're so divided."
Vitti cited the will of current students when giving his support for changing the name. He says the students never wanted the name of Forrest on the school when it was adopted more than 50 years ago, and they’re showing now they don’t want it either.
It’s a sentiment all seven board members drew on as well when casting their vote to change the name. The change will be in effect by July 2014.
“I believe this is an opportunity for Jacksonville- the City of Jacksonville- and our school District to move on,” Vitti says.
This decision now sends the vote back to the students to decide what they want the new name of the school to be. Vitti plans to announce the favored name at the School Board’s regularly scheduled January meeting. The survey taken to lead to Monday night’s vote indicated that Westside High School and Firestone High School may be two of the frontrunners. The name change does not, however, mean the school’s mascot- the Rebels- will be changing. Vitti says that will also be a vote by the students.
While many of the current students are in support of the change, many alumni came to speak to board members about how they felt- that changing the name would in essence wipe out their history with the school.
“I heard overwhelmingly that there was a sense their identity would be removed with a change in the name, and I don’t think that could ever be the case,” Vitti says.
While board members and Vitti alike ensured that the value of diplomas will be unchanged, alums still consider the change disrespectful.
"If they did their research, and are true education, and if they had one, they would realize that Nathan Bedford Forrest wasn't that bad of a person," says Darrin Touchton from Fleming Island, a 1978 graduate.
All the changes associated with the name will cost an estimated $400,000.
Touchton says that money is best used elsewhere. "Remodeling the school. Clean the place up. Band uniforms. Football uniforms. I mean, anything," he says.
Vitti says several private donors have already expressed an interest in paying to change the sports uniforms, which will be the brunt of the cost. Remaining costs, like changing the marquee on the side of the school, will come from capitol dollars and not, Vitti says, from money that would have otherwise been available for the classroom.
And when questioned if he thought this would open a potential floodgate- Vitti disagreed. Duval schools are no stranger to potentially controversial namesakes- like Robert E. Lee High School. Vitti says there have not been any other formal name change requests that have come to his office.
One of the uniform feelings from the board, the Superintendent, and the nearly 30 people who came Monday night to vote, is that it’s about time to stop talking about the name of the school and talk more about the school itself. Vitti says he hopes raising money to change the name will lead donors to see some of the underfunding in the school itself and donate to education as well. He says however divisive this spotlight has been, he hopes one of the benefits that comes is a new attention toward the help some of the schools in our district still need.