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StateImpact: What's in a high school name?

Forrest High was originally named for Nathan Bedford Forrest—the Civil War general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The issue divided Jacksonville for decades.

Last June, a group of education advocates from Jacksonville’s African American community gathered around a table at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church to discuss education disparities. Aleta Alston-Toure expressed her frustration at what she sees as institutional racism.

"Duval county has a school where the klu klux klan is still the title of that high school", Alston-Toure said. "And that school is? Forrest."

Nathan B. Forrest High School, home of the Rebels, is a majority African American high school. There have been many attempts to change the name in the past 50 years—as recently as 2008, when the school board elected not to rename Forrest. They votes fell along along color lines.

Peter Moran is a historian and professor who studies how schools get named in the South.

"Things like this are literally carved-in-stone sorts of decisions", said Moran.

He says schools of a certain era reflect the power structures of their time. You can probe those a little bit and learn something about those people who made that decision and the values of that place at that point in time.

In 1959, students at what was then a new high school in Jacksonville voted to become the Valhalla High Vikings. Like so many southern cities at the time, Jacksonville was wrestling with its identity against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. And at the last minute, the Daughters of the Confederacy convinced the school board to name the school after Forrest.

Bruce Turkel is the CEO and executive creative director of Turkel Brands in Miami. His firm has worked on branding for big civic projects.

Turkel says that when it comes to naming a cultural institution, like a school, there’s a responsibility to the people who use it and the community around it.

"These names are going to last a long time if you do your job right", said Turkel. "These things matter"

In an interview with StateImpact Florida in June, Jacksonville’s superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti indicated he would be open to renaming Forrest if the community supported it. After that, more than 160,000 people signed a petition to change Forrest’s name. 

The school district held a series of public hearings. Many of the speakers who came out in favor of keeping Forrest said the name was part of their personal history.

"Forrest was a slave trader, that is true, but again, it’s Being looked at with 2013 eyes, not 1860 eyes. At that time, it was a legitimate business", said one supporter of keeping the name.

"There were a total of 7 people in our immediate family who graduated from Forrest", another claimed. 

"It’s part of my heritage", explained one man. "It’s part of my status as a veteran, sharing my status with Nathan Bedford Forrest"

Speakers in favor of the name change brushed that criticism aside.

"This isn’t gonna change anyone’s history", pointed out a pro-name change speaker. "People aren’t going to come in the middle of the night and say we want your yearbook so we can change it"

On Monday, the school board voted unanimously to change the name. It’s a different school board now than when Forrest came up for a vote in 2008. And according to Vitti, the name change indicates it’s a different Jacksonville.

"I think it restores faith in part of the community that didn’t always feel we were equitable with our decisions", said Vitti.

On the Tuesday morning after the vote, student Tremain McCreary walked to a school that had the same name on the facade for now, the same classrooms, the same students as the day before. But McCreary says it's different now.

"It shows me that someone cares about my education", McCreary said. "Not just sending me to a school named after a confederate general. Change is being put in place. My thoughts matter."

McCreary, his classmates, and Forrest alumni are being given the chance to vote on a replacement name. Whatever they choose—it won’t be a person’s name. There’s a rule against that in Jacksonville now.