JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- School board member Jason Fischer held a town hall meeting to discuss budget questions with his constituents, but also got an earful of opinions about changing the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.
"I believe it is time that Forrest High school had a new name," said Tom Hickman.
They lined up to speak to tell Fischer just how they felt about possibly changing the name of Nathan Bedford Forest High School, who historians say was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Fischer said he was interested in hearing what his constituents had to say and the topic ended up being a major subject of discussion. Those that came did not hold back.
"Nathan Bedford Forrest is a Confederate general and very much a part of my heritage," said one woman who talked of her relatives that fought in the Civil War. "Do I believe he should be honored? Absolutely not."
"He was a dealer in flesh, in pain, in oppression, in exploitation. Is that what we want this city to be known for?" asked Wells Todd, a member of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition.
Robert Wembley spoke of earlier days when he dealt with racism, and said it was still evident in this city. "This despicable man should have no kind of honor, and I cannot believe we have people who want to keep that name. It does not make sense at all."
1970 Forrest graduate Joan Cooper argued against the name change, saying it had no effect on the students at the school. She said other school names in Jacksonville bearing the names of Confederate generals would have to be changed and the money would be better spent on students.
Bodie Catlin with Friends of Forrest says a lot of untruths are being said about Forrest.
"After reading 8 books on Nathan Bedford Forrest, I know the man backwards and forwards. He did cause the Klan to be disbanded, I don't know if he was a member of the Klan or not, but he did cause it to be disbanded and it lay dormant for like 41 years. He did reach out to the black community, he spoke at the Pole Bearers meeting, which was a precursor to the NAACP."
Catlin said thousands of blacks attended his funeral.
Andy Johnson spoke out at the meeting and said that the school board that named the school in 1959 was upset over the desegregation ruling in the courts and wanted to send a message.
"To tell them we are for segregation. It is wrong to perpetuate something that was chosen as a way to say, we are for segregation, and I urge the school board to make the change."
Ty Richmond spoke as well. He is the Jacksonville resident who started a petition on change.org to change the name. His petition has 140,000 signatures as of Thursday night, 23,000 added in the last day. He started it because he said he believes the Forrest name advocates hate.
No decision has been made on when the school board might vote on a name change. Board member Connie Hall was asked by the school board members to survey the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and the students at the school, as well as the School Advisory Council and see where they stand on a name change. She is to report back her findings to the board at the end of October.
After the town hall meeting, Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he was glad to live in a country where people could listen to people with such polarizing opinions, yet show respect. Vitti said he believes it will take an organic voluntary effort to change the name.
Vitti said the next step is to see if the school's PTA, or School Advisory Council will solicit a name change, or an individual board member could make a recommendation. That would then mean a vote on the issue could take place among the school board.
First Coast News