When Rodney Jones and Tremain McCreary walked to school on Tuesday morning, the brothers were headed to the same classrooms, to sit next to the same students, in a building with the same façade it had on Monday.
But it was not the same school they had gone to the day before.
“It’s a relief to me to know the school name had changed—I was thinking about it: how do we have a KKK leader’s name for our school?” says Jones.
“Things are changing around this school,” says McCreary.
On Monday night, the Duval County Public School Board voted unanimously to rename Nathan B. Forrest High School.
Forrest High was originally named for Nathan Bedford Forrest—the Civil War general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
It almost didn’t happen that way. In 1959, students at what was then a new high school in Jacksonville voted to become the Valhalla High Vikings. But like so many southern cities at the time, Jacksonville was wrestling with its identity against the backdrop of the civil rights movement.
At the last minute, the Daughters of the Confederacy convinced the board to name the school after Forrest.
“That was clearly a reaction to the civil rights movement and desegregation,” says Jacksonville’s superintendent, Dr. Nikolai Vitti. “What I think is concerning about that is, one: it negated the voice of the students. But it also was a sign of the resistance to racial equality.
“Things like this are literally carved-in-stone sorts of decisions,” says Peter Moran, a historian and professor who studies how schools get named in the South.
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.”
“These names are going to last a long time if you do your job right,” says Bruce Turkel, CEO and executive creative director of Turkel Brands in Miami. His firm has worked on branding for big civic projects like the new Soundscape Park on Miami Beach. “These things matter.”
Turkel says that when it comes to naming an important cultural institution—like a school—there’s a responsibility to the people who use it and the community around it.
The school once known as Nathan B. Forrest High School, home of the Rebels, is now a majority African-American high school—and critics of the name have made many attempts to change it over the years.
For community and education activists like Aleta Alston-Toure, the Forrest name represented an institutional racism.
“That’s a small thing, changing the name of a school,” said Alston-Toure, but she said the change represents an important first victory.
As recently as 2008, the school board elected not to rename Forrest. The votes fell along color lines.
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 speaker during public comments.
“It’s part of my heritage, it’s part of my status as a veteran, sharing my status with Nathan Bedford Forrest,” said another.
Jacksonville residents in favor of the change brushed the criticism aside.
“This isn’t gonna change anyone’s history,” said one man. “People aren’t going to come in the middle of the night and say, ‘we want your yearbook so we can change it.’”
When the school board members voted to change the name, most of them cited a survey showing that current students supported a name change.
It’s a different board than the one that voted in 2008. And, says Vitti, the decision indicates it’s a different Jacksonville, too.
“I think it restores faith in part of the community that didn’t always feel we were equitable with our decisions,” says Vitti.
He hopes that students at Forrest will see this episode as evidence that their voice has power.
“It shows me that someone cares about my education—not just sending me to a school named after a confederate general,” says McCreary. “My thoughts matter. I feel a sense of accomplishment.”
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.