Nathan Beford Forrest High: Time For a Name Change

August 26, 2013 238 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

There is a new fight to change the name of Nathan Beford Forrest High School being organized by Professor Stoll. Robert Montgomerie weighs in on why this is important and reflects on the almost inexplicable history behind a high school being named after the founder of the Klan.

Eighteen days after the incident at Fort Pillow, April 12th 1864, Harper's Weekly published an account of the massacre of Union troops at the hands of General Nathan Beford Forrest.

Harper's Weekly, April 30th, 1864:

On the 12th April, the rebel General Forest appeared before Fort Pillow... attacking it with considerable vehemence. This was followed up by frequent demands for its surrender, which were refused by Major Booth, who commanded the fort. The fight was then continued up until 3 p.m., when Major Booth was killed, and the rebels, in large numbers, swarmed the entrenchments. Up to that time comparatively few of our men had been killed; but immediately upon occupying the place the rebels commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the white and black including the wounded. Both white and black were bayoneted, shot, or sabred; even dead bodies were horribly mutilated, and children of seven and eight years, and several negro women killed in cold blood. Soldiers unable to speak from wounds were shot dead, and their bodies rolled down the banks of the river. The dead and wounded negroes were piled in heaps and burned, and several citizens, who had joined our forces for protection, were killed and wounded. Out of the garrison of six hundred only two hundred remained alive. Three hundred of those massacred were negroes; five were buried alive. Six guns were captured by the rebels, and carried off, including two 10-pound Parrots, and two 12-pound howitzers. A large amount of stores was destroyed or carried away.

This is one of several accounts of brutality reported by Union and Confederate troops initiated by General Nathan Beford Forrest - a man commemorated as the namesake for a high school here in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1959, as a result of lobbying by the Daughters of the Confederacy, angered over the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education which served as the legal basis for forced integration of schools across the country, they pushed hard for the school to be named after Forrest in a neighborhood that once signified the once prevalent phenomena of "white flight".

The school opened in 1959 in the site where J.E.B. Stuart Middle School is in Wesconnett today, before being moved to its current location on Firestone Road off of 103rd Street. The school remained segregated until the fall of 1966 when officials started to allow select African American students to attend. It wasn't until 1971 that Duval County Schools were ordered to fully integrate based on geographic attendance districts. As of recent, 54% of the students who attend Forrest High School, out of a total student body of 1800, are African American.

Despite several suggestions in 1959 and two attempts, in 1999 and 2008, to change the name of the high school, it remains the same. The most recent attempt was headed by Florida State College at Jacksonville Professor, Steve Stoll, who encouraged a few students to take on the project to fulfill a class requirement, that became a crusade to right what is perceived by many to be a very ugly mistake made by our School Board in 1959. In entertaining the lobbying by a reactionary group, determined to defend the legacy of human trafficking and white supremacy, Jacksonville was left with an embarrassment to our community by allowing such a reprehensible character to be honored in such a way.

Why would our School Board allow and institution of learning to be named after a man who was a semi-literate brute? What kind of pride and inspiration could be contrived from attending a school named after a man who more than likely had to have someone read to him? The fact that the school between the years of 2006 and 2008 recorded, collectively, two "F's" and a "D" should be an indication.

But it gets better. Consider the fact that after a stunning vote 5 to 2 in 2008, the first principal of the school, Billy Parker, was thrilled that the school would be keeping its original name and referred to Forrest as, "a good man." A man who would ignore the pleas of his own Confederate Soldiers, such as Achilles V. Clark of the 20th Tennessee Cavalry, who attempted to stop the murderous rampage at Fort Pillow. One sergeant reported that despite attempts to calm down the "butchery", Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs. "Kill the last goddamned one of them", Forrest ordered. Clark also wrote that the killing didn't cease until the men got sick of seeing blood.

Forrest's blood thirsty nature was not reserved for only African-Americans. He found a man and a boy without papers near Selma, Alabama and had them shot for desertion, placing a sign above their dead bodies to that effect. Their bodies were left out for two days on display before they were buried. Later evidence turned out that they had been discharged. Is this the "good man" Billy Parker was referring to?

Tommy Hazouri, who voted to keep the name, said that it was unknown who the real Forrest was. Yet accounts do tell us who the real Nathan Bedford Forrest was despite Hazouri's feeble attempt to justify his vote. Forrest was a human trafficker who made a fortune off of selling human beings into bondage without respect to even keeping family structure together. A Civil War newspaper account reported that Forrest personally administered beatings once stretching out women and beating them with a leather thong soaked in saltwater. Surely a person capable of this kind of cruelty would never be commemorated by having anything associated with the molding and sculpting of young minds as his "namesake"?

After the war Forrest organized perhaps one of the most vile terrorist organizations this country has ever seen until 9/11. The Ku Klux Klan during Forrest's watch, in 1867 to 1869, was instrumental in keeping African-Americans from voting, obstructing attempts to integrate them into society by policies carried out by reconstructionist state governments, and went after any person who were "known sympathizers" with the same zeal as he would have any former slave.

What the Daughters of the Confederacy did in 1959 amounts to no more than forcing dishonor on every person in this city. The fact that people from our African-American community are asked to support a school that honors a rube of such 3rd rate dimensions that it bends one's mind to even ponder. The Civil War was a human struggle with tragedies that live with us to this very day and the fact that we have a school named after perhaps one the vilest figures of the nineteenth century only serves as an admission to our failings.

The Civil War, reconstruction, and the Era of Jim Crow was the result of the elites in the south who strove to protect their institution of bondage by pitting everyday people against everyday people. Somehow that turned into racism along the way and now with time - although seeming to be unimportant - affects the very fabric of American society as hard as that may be to believe.

There is a new fight to change the name of Nathan Beford Forrest High School being organized by Professor Stoll in the hopes of accomplishing what had surprisingly failed in 2008. Hopefully enough time has passed to bring about the change that should have never had to have occurred with to begin with had our School Board pondered it so many years ago.  

Robert Montgomerie