What’s in a name?
Shakespeare aside, quite a lot. A name can be a source of pride, a link to history or a way to bring the community together. On the other hand, certain names can serve as a shameful reminder of what drives a community apart.
A Jacksonville, Fla., school has long carried the second type of name. Nathan B. Forrest High School was the namesake of a Confederate general who served as the Ku Klux Klan’s first “grand wizard.” Now, however, the Duval County school district has announced it will rename the high school, following an online petition drive that gathered more than 160,000 signatures.
Omotayo Richmond, the Jacksonville resident who wrote the online petition, said in his initial argument that “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.” The Washington Post reported that over half of the student body is made up of African-American students.
While Richmond’s point should be self-evident, a previous attempt to change the name failed. All the school board members who voted against the name change when it was proposed in 2007 have since been replaced, and the current board voted unanimously in December to remove Forrest’s name.
When the school opened in 1959, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the pro-segregation Daughters of the Confederacy pushed to name the school for Forrest. Even at the time, however, the name rode roughshod over the wishes of the student body, who favored the noncontroversial name “Valhalla High School.” Naming the school for a renowned racist was a political protest and a futile attempt to push back against progress. Moreover, it was an adult agenda being forced on the local kids. Those kids knew better than their elders. Now adults themselves, they are getting a chance to put things right.
The high school’s new name will be Westside Senior High, a name all its students can be proud of without reservation. The name change will be in effect by the beginning of the school year in the fall.
I hope this presages a movement across the South to strike symbols of the Confederacy, especially the Confederate flag, from public life. Private people will always have the right to display it on their own property; that’s just free speech. But regardless of the various connotations it may have for white Southerners, the fact is that nearly every African-American sees it as a symbol of hatred and oppression that was dusted off in the 1950s and ‘60s as a mark of resistance to integration. It has no more place on a state flag or in a public building than does a swastika. No one can look at such a symbol without wondering whether the person displaying it means to say something with the image that it is no longer acceptable to put into words.
We will have to settle for one step at a time. Renaming a public school in Jacksonville is a good place to start.