In the 'cancel culture' debate, the battle over a Black high school named for a KKK grand wizard still resonates

David Knowles
·Editor
·17 min read

In the debate over so-called cancel culture, conservatives like Fox News host Tucker Carlson warn that if monuments to Confederate soldiers are taken down, or schools named after those historical figures who participated in the institution of slavery are given new ones, the entire history of the country will be subject to erasure.

“If we’re going to judge the past by the standards of the present, if we’re going to reduce a person’s life to the single worst thing he ever participated in, we had better be prepared for the consequences of that,” Carlson said on his program in August.

While many Americans agree with that slippery slope argument, and school boards in cities like San Francisco have reconsidered plans to rename schools following a public backlash, memorials to questionable historical figures continue to fall, especially across the South. One such recent case, the renaming of Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Fla., continues to resonate.

This photo taken on Sept. 30, 2013, shows the exterior of the Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Fla.  (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)
The Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Fla. in 2013. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

In the summer of 2013, Omotayo Richmond, an African American car salesman, was driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood on Jacksonville’s west side when he came upon a school whose name caused him to do a double-take.

“I drove past it. ‘Forrest Gump’ was one of my favorite movies. When I saw the name Nathan Forrest on the school with the B. and everything, I was like, ‘That can’t be the same,’” Richmond told Yahoo News.

In the scene from the 1994 film that had etched itself into Richmond’s memory, the title character, played by Tom Hanks, recalled his namesake.

“Now, when I was a baby, Mama named me after the great Civil War hero Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. She said we was related to him in some way and what he did was he started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan,” Gump says in the film. “They’d all dress up in they robes and they bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something. They’d even put bedsheets on they horses and ride around. Anyway, that’s how I got my name, Forrest Gump. Mama said the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.”

Incensed that a modern-day high school would still carry Forrest’s name, especially one in a heavily African American neighborhood, Richmond was motivated to act.

Omotayo Richmond
Jacksonville, Fla., resident Omotayo Richmond. (Via Facebook)

“I did some research, and lo and behold. I thought it had to have been one of the oldest schools, but it wasn’t, it was actually a relatively new name — civil rights era,” he said. “Once I found all that out, I took exception to the name.”

A native of New York serving in the U.S. Navy when he was transferred to Naval Air Station Jacksonville in 2001, Richmond said he was often put off during his first few years in the South by the extent to which the culture still celebrated the Confederacy. But seeing a school named for the first grand wizard of the Klan was a new low.

Determined to try to do something about what he saw as an offensive name, when he started reaching out to other members of the Black community, Richmond said that nobody wanted to help him try to change the name of the school.

“The nature of the beast here in Florida. Good ol' boy town, good ol' boy mentality. ‘We’ve been doing it like this for years. Doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t make sense. We don’t care, we’re gonna do it like this anyway.’ That can be really difficult to overcome.”

Undeterred, he decided to start a petition at Change.org to try to have the school renamed.

Richmond wasn’t the first person in Jacksonville to take issue with Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. In 2007, after students at the mostly Black school protested and members of the larger community took up the cause, the school board held a vote on whether to rename it. The five white members of the board voted to keep the name, while two Black members voted to get rid of it.

One of the people who spoke at the 2007 school board meeting was Aaron Sheehan-Dean, who at that time was a professor of Civil War history at the University of North Florida.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean. (Courtesy of Aaron Sheehan-Dean)
Aaron Sheehan-Dean. (Courtesy of Aaron Sheehan-Dean)

Sheehan-Dean was teaching a course on historical memory that semester, and had his students explore the school board archives to uncover the origin of the 1959 decision to name a school after Forrest — who was a slave trader and Confederate general before he became the first grand wizard of the Klan — despite the fact that he had never lived or fought in the city.

“It was the United Daughters of the Confederacy that basically brought the proposal to the school board, saying, ‘We should name it after Nathan Bedford Forrest,’” Sheehan-Dean, who is now a professor at Louisiana State University and the author of several books on the Civil War, told Yahoo News. “There was awareness on the school board at the time that this might be a bad idea, but they went ahead with it anyway. What was particularly galling about that episode was that it happened in the midst of the civil rights movement. It is not a school named after Lee in 1915 or something. It seemed very much done to spite the civil rights movement.”

At the time it was named, Nathan Bedford Forrest High School did not allow Black students, and wouldn’t until 1971. That was the year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of busing to desegregate public schools so as to finally make good on the Brown v. Board of Education ruling 17 years earlier. As in communities across the South, the desegregation order reshuffled neighborhoods in Jacksonville, leading to massive white flight. While not a single Black student attended Forrest High School at the start of 1971, by the time the school board heard the arguments for changing its name in 2007, roughly 60 percent of its students were African American.

Cyber-systems engineer Kenyatta Malcom graduated from the high school in 1993 and said she found the apathy surrounding the name as troubling as the legacy of the man himself.

“It was done out of spite, you know, that name. And people said we should just get over it. I’ve never been comfortable with that,” she told Yahoo News. “I never was comfortable with his history. He was a former grand wizard of the KKK and a former Confederate. We had to see his painting on the wall, the devil himself,” Malcom said.

Kenyatta Malcom
Former Forrest High School student Kenyatta Malcom. (Via Facebook)

While the United Daughters of the Confederacy declined a request for an interview for this article, the group says on its website that it “appreciates the feelings of citizens across the country” regarding the Confederate monuments and memorials that the group helped enshrine.

“The United Daughters of the Confederacy totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy,” Linda Edwards, the group’s president general, said in a statement posted to the website. “And we call on these people to cease using Confederate symbols for their abhorrent and reprehensible purposes.”

For decades across the South, the response employed by defenders of Confederate flags is that the symbol represents “history, not hate.” Yet the UDC’s attempts to disentangle the hatred epitomized by slavery from Confederate history don’t sit well with Sheehan-Dean.

“The 1880s is when the memorial organizations take root. They are essential parts of the Lost Cause more generally, promulgating a narrative of the Civil War as an equal competition between two noble armies over abstract propositions around states’ rights. They very explicitly take out emancipation and slavery as part of the Civil War,” he said.

“Groups like the UDC leveraged their weight on textbooks in schools, they promoted essay-writing contests, they built monuments. The initial organizations are called the Ladies’ Memorial Associations, and those pop up almost in 1865, certainly in the late ’60s. The LMAs are doing most of the memorializing work in the immediate wake of the war, and they’re able to get away with political actions that men would have been punished for. It’s very specifically a kind of political memory that they craft.”

At Duval County School Board meetings in 2007 and 2013 and on the editorial pages of the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville residents fiercely debated Forrest’s legacy. For those who were against honoring him, the evidence of his racism was crystal clear: Forrest was a plantation owner in Tennessee, a slave trader, a Confederate general whose troops committed a mass slaughter of Black Union troops attempting to surrender at Fort Pillow, Tenn., and, after the Civil War, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest
A statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, Tenn. (Adrian Sainz/AP)

Forrest’s defenders excused his ownership and trading of slaves as simply part of the larger culture at the time. They noted his acumen as a horseman and said he never personally authorized the massacre of Black troops at Fort Pillow. Further, they claimed that his role in the early KKK was overstated and that he resigned from the group in 1871.

Sheehan-Dean has taken issue with all the claims made by Forrest’s defenders, noting that military generals are responsible for the acts of soldiers under their command. As for the year of Forrest’s resignation from the Klan, Sheehan-Dean pointed to the fact that 1871 was also the year the U.S. Justice Department was founded, and that one of its first orders of business was to investigate the KKK. Forrest himself was compelled to testify owing to his involvement with the group.

“As a strictly military matter, it’s debatable how much of an impact he actually had on the war,” Sheehan-Dean said, adding, “That it was at an early stage of the KKK, that doesn’t really exonerate him in any substantial way. The goal from the beginning, from the earliest moments of the Ku Klux Klan, was to effectively deny emancipation and to do their best to re-create a social order like one that prevailed in the antebellum South, which meant using violence to ensure that African Americans exercised as little autonomy in the world as possible.”

‘Tug of war’

Like Carlson, former President Donald Trump is outspoken in his opposition to renaming schools and military bases that honor those who owned slaves or fought for the Confederacy.

“My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations,” Trump tweeted in July in response to a Defense Department plan to rename 10 military bases named after Confederate generals. “Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with.”

Trump, however, has often gone beyond simply letting history lie where it may, embracing and promoting its more controversial figures. When he became president, for instance, he installed a portrait of Jacksonville’s namesake, Andrew Jackson, in the Oval Office. He routinely spoke glowingly about Jackson, the former owner of hundreds of slaves who led the U.S. military campaigns against the Seminole Indians. He spent years hunting down runaway slaves and returning them to their masters. As president, he oversaw the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands, including the infamous “Trail of Tears” march, which resulted in the deaths of 5,000 Cherokees. All of that may explain why many people want his portrait on the $20 bill replaced with Harriet Tubman’s, but Trump wasn’t about to cancel Jackson.

Donald Trump
Then-President Donald Trump with a portrait of Andrew Jackson. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

In the local debate over whether to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, some residents argued that doing so would ultimately lead the city on a collision with the legacy of the seventh president.

“If the adults stayed out of it, the children who attend Forrest High School could get a quality education,” Jacksonville resident Jon Sackerson wrote to the Florida Times-Union in October 2013. “If we take the advice of the Times-Union editorial board, then the next step would naturally be to change the name of Andrew Jackson High School.”

Perhaps because the public had already begun debating Forrest’s legacy in 2007, Richmond’s Change.org petition quickly gained traction in the autumn of 2013. After joining forces with the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, Richmond spent weeks going door to door, trying to convince his neighbors of the importance of changing the school’s name.

“We did some neighborhood canvassing, and it was 50-50 across the board whether the person was black, white, old or young,” he said. “I thought, This might be way harder I thought. I think I’ve bit off more than I can chew.”

As he talked to more people, however, Richmond found that Forrest’s connection to the Klan was the biographical detail most difficult to ignore, and it was that fact that he returned to again and again.

“Why I took exception to Forrest was strictly because of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization that has terrorized African Americans to this day,” Richmond said. “This dude is foul. He shouldn’t have a school named after him. I’m not indicting all white people — my friends are incredibly diverse. I’m not that pro-Black-power guy, everything Black, I’m not that guy at all. But I am a guy that will fight for rights under every circumstance.”

On Dec. 16, 2013, the school board held its meeting to decide the fate of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. The room was packed with local residents, television cameras and reporters. When the votes were counted on the resolution to change the school’s name, not one member of the board, Black or white, supported keeping it, and the crowd burst into applause.

“It is time for Jacksonville to move on,” then school board superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “I’m not in a position to judge Nathan B. Forrest, but undeniably the Nathan B. Forrest name has divided this community.”

Of course, not everyone was happy.

Tim Pickering
Forrest High School graduate Tim Pickering, wearing his band jacket, listens to the school board debate in 2013 about changing the school's name. (Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via AP)

“This isn’t going to stop the divide. This is just the beginning. Fifty schools are named after somebody — Black or white,” Teresa Cluff, a white 1970 graduate of the school, told the Times-Union. “That’s $500,000 per school, $25 million. Where are you going to find the money?” she said, referencing the cost of renaming schools.

In 2020, the Duval County School Board again voted unanimously to look into changing the names of six schools named after Confederate heroes Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Edmund Kirby Smith, Joseph Finnegan and J.E.B. Stuart. Weeks later it added three more to the list, one named after Andrew Jackson and two after 16th century French explorer Jean Ribault. In their rationale for expanding the historical parameters to before the Civil War, the school board said those schools were named for “people responsible for systematically marginalizing and killing Indigenous people.”

Pushing the envelope is precisely what so many conservatives fear will lead our society down a path that ends without any heroes at all. In San Francisco, for example, the local school board came under fire for attempting to rename schools bearing the names of figures like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, only to reconsider.

By the same token, the decision of who we memorialize has always been a subjective matter, decided by those in positions of power. The UDC, for instance, used its influence to erect more monuments and statues of Forrest in his home state of Tennessee than those of Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and James Polk — the three U.S. presidents from the state — combined, Time magazine reported.

Tennessee residents like singer Taylor Swift successfully lobbied for the removal of a bust of Forrest from the state Capitol.

A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest
A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

“As a Tennessean, it makes me sick that there are monuments standing in our state that celebrate racist historical figures who did evil things,” Swift tweeted in June. “Edward Carmack and Nathan Bedford Forrest were DESPICABLE figures in our state history and should be treated as such.”

Swift said that while removing statues wouldn’t, in and of itself, solve the larger problem of racism, it would represent “one small step” in “making ALL Tennesseans and visitors to our state feel safe — not just the white ones.”

Sheehan-Dean bristles at the conservative argument that the removal of memorials and monuments amounts to erasing the past.

“As a historian, I obviously believe we need to pay attention to the past and we write books and give lectures to do that. So when people say, ‘You’re erasing the past,’ it’s always strange to me. I think, well, last year there were hundreds of new books published on the Civil War. I hardly think we’re erasing it,” he said.

“I think there’s a category difference between teaching history, reading and talking about history, and then the kind of memorialization that happens when you put a statue in a public square in the center of town or you make something a focal point of community identity. Those identities are going to change over time, particularly if the demographics and the way people think about the past continue to change. So what we really do as historians is study change over time, and we have to learn to accept that.”

To be sure, what to some seems like a sudden quickening of the pace of historical change is disorienting. Since white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire on a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015, killing nine Black parishioners, more than 140 Confederate monuments have been removed. But to hear the people who had lived for so long with the symbols and mythology that inspired Roof, that change seems long overdue.

Statue of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart
A statue of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart being removed in Richmond, Va., in July 2020. (Steve Helber/AP)

“When we decide that these memorials don’t represent our values, changing them seems appropriate,” Sheehan-Dean said. “I think that these are local decisions, and they should be. It would be great if it entailed robust arguments about how to understand the past.”

Though Malcom, the 1993 graduate from the school, says she feels relieved that her old school now goes by its new name, Westside High School, she also knows there’s much more work to be done before the mindset that led people to want to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest is extinguished.

“It’s going to take a whole lot of time. To be honest, I don’t think racism is going to go anywhere,” Malcom said. “It seems like more people are getting madder about cancel culture. We have one side that wants to stay the same and another that wants to progress. It’s going to always be a tug of war.”

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