As more than 75,000 from around the country took to advocacy website Change.org to sign a petition insisting that a Florida high school remove the name of the man widely credited as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, one local man is fighting to keep the name. He says he’s fighting for history.
D.F. Buddy Harris, a 1977 alumnus of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, has started a petition of his own (at http://www.nbfhs.com/) to keep the school named after Forrest.
“It’s obviously nothing near what the other folks have gotten, but we’re doing what we can,” Harris told the Daily World.
He launched his petition a little more than a week ago on a website he maintains for friends and alumni of the school. He says that those calling for a name change ignore the full history of Forrest’s life.
“[Forrest] did have initial association with the group, but got out as soon as it started getting…I guess you could say bad. Let’s call it that,” said Harris. “I don’t know if maybe there’s some different intent [for changing the school's name]. You can say one thing, but the real agenda is something different. I just don’t think it would be a good thing to try and erase history.”
The Change.org petition seeking to change the school’s name was started by Omotayo “Ty” Richmond, a father and resident of Jacksonville who contends that it’s inappropriate for children like his daughter, who may one day attend the school, to take classes at an institution that honors a KKK leader and slave trader.
Richmond said he launched the campaign when he learned that more than half of the students at the high school are African American.
“Jacksonville is where I call home, and it’s where I’m raising my daughter,” he said. “The KKK is a symbol of racism and I don’t think my daughter, or any student, should have to attend a school that honors the Klan’s first Grand Wizard. There are many former and current students who agree with me and are signing my petition. This is a community issue, and we’re showing that the community is ready for change.”
Richmond’s petition called for signers to leave comments explaining why they supported the name change and many have. Jacksonville native Vanessa W. wrote:
“There is so much power in a name and, unfortunately, the potency in Nathan B Forrest High School’s name is detrimental to our students and community. The Civil War saw the failed division of our strong country, and successful creation of a terrorist group. To celebrate a legacy rooted in separation and hatred is to completely undermine all the values we seek to instill in our young scholars. As a product of Duval County Public Schools and current public school teacher, I challenge governing bodies to create a better future by honoring a less shameful past.”
Signatures on Richmond’s petition are being delivered via email to Duval County School District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who has said he would “support a name change recommendation if it were brought organically to the [school] board by the community.”
The Change.org petition had garnered 77,571 supporters at press time, but most are from outside the Jacksonville area and many aren’t even from the state of Florida. That fact has made what may seem like a very one-sided debate a bit more nuanced.
Harris’ petition has received significantly fewer signatures – “200 even,” by his count – but most have a connection to the high school. And while the numbers are staggeringly in Richmond’s favor, the deciding factor may well be whether or not school alumni and students want to see the name changed.
“A lot of the students don’t seem to care about the name. It doesn’t seem to affect them at all,” said Harris. “[Forrest] is just a person the school was named after. Nobody’s an angel, but he went on to do better things later in life.”
It has been noted that Forrest did leave the Klan, and, in fact, the New York Times recounts his last significant public appearance, on the Fourth of July in Memphis, when he appeared before “the colored people at their celebration, was publicly presented with a bouquet by them as a mark of peace and reconciliation, and made a friendly speech in reply.
“In this he once more took occasion to defend himself and his war record, and to declare that he was a hearty friend of the colored race.”
More than honoring or protecting the legacy of Forrest, Harris says that he hopes retaining the high school’s name will invite people to learn more about history rather than trying to erase it.
“If [the school] were named Rainbow Unicorn High School then no one would look up the history and learn anything about this,” he said. “So maybe it’s a good thing the school’s name is what it is, so it gives some people the nudge to actually do the research and find out.”