A petition to rename a Florida school called after a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan has directed the attention and the ire of the internet to the school district in Duval County, Fla., home of Nathan B. Forrest High School.
“African-American Jacksonville students shouldn’t have to attend a high school named for someone who slaughtered and terrorized their ancestors one more school year,” reads the petition by Omotayo Richmond, a resident of Jacksonville, in Duval County. Many of Forrest High School’s students are African-American, but the school came by its name at a time when its student body was entirely white. According to the petition, naming the school after Forrest was part of a protest against the integration of Duval County’s schools.
The superintendent of the 125,000-student district, Nikolai Vitti, said earlier this summer that he would “support a name change recommendation if it were brought organically to the [school] board by the community,” according to Change.org. The district’s board voted several years ago to keep the name.
Duval’s school board has not yet received an official petition to change the school’s name, according to Marsha Oliver, a spokeswoman for the district. The district has an official policy for renaming schools, Oliver said: The superintendent, a school board member, the school’s student or parent group, or a group of community members, students, or alumni that is as large as 75 percent of the current student body can submit a petition for a new name. That petition is then voted on by the district’s school board and referred to the superintendent, who then seeks out community approval and offers a recommendation back to the board about whether the school should be renamed.
“I’ve heard 70,000 signatures,” Oliver said. “But online petition is not the way by which our school board acts, in compliance with the policy that’s been developed.”
The Change.org petition had some 77,000 signatures as of this afternoon. But it seems that the key to changing the school’s name will be making sure that enough of those petitioners are Forrest-area residents, students, or alumni who are willing to submit the name change to the board.
Duval County is not the only place where schools named after historical figures have drawn fire. In New Orleans, there was a movement to remove the names of slaveholders from schools in the city, whose public school students are mainly African-American. The city’s board voted in 1992 to change the names of all schools named after slaveholders, which meant that schools named after prominent slaveholders including Robert E. Lee and George Washington changed names.
In 2007, Jay Greene, now a professor at the University of Arkansas, wrote about a trend away from naming schools after civic leaders. Schools are more likely now than in the past to be named after nature instead of historical figures. Greene suggests that naming schools after civic leaders and presidents can help spark civic engagement and conversations about history. (Fun fact from the report: Five public schools in Florida are named after George Washington; 11 are named after manatees.) Greene’s paper doesn’t address in depth the implications of having a school named after a slaveholder.
In Duval County, a renamed Nathan B. Forrest High School would be more likely to be named after the gentle sea cow than the nation’s first president: Per the district’s policy, people’s names are no longer permitted as new school names.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.