Fla. School To Change Name Tied To Ku Klux Klan Leader

fromWJCT

A school board in Jacksonville, Fla., has decided that one of its schools should no longer be named after Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was also a general in the Civil War. Nathan Bedford Forrest High School received its name in the 1950s, and for decades the decision has been debated.

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Well, we've made it to Wednesday and this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. This is the last year that students in Jacksonville, Florida will graduate from a school named for a Civil War-era leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Karen Feagins of member station WJCT reports the school board voted unanimously this week to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest High School.

KAREN FEAGINS, BYLINE: The name of the school was controversial from the very beginning. Though students and community members lobbied for other names, the Daughters of the Confederacy recommended Nathan B. Forrest. Current Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says the 1959 decision was a form of protest.

NIKOLAI VITTI: And that was clearly a reaction to the civil rights movement and desegregation.

FEAGINS: Like those in many cities in the Deep South, Jacksonville city leaders refused to integrate schools. A 1963 court ruling forced them to begin, but it was a very slow process. Civil rights activist Rodney Hurst came up through the segregated Duval County schools.

RODNEY HURST: Jacksonville was totally separated. There was no communication. There was nothing that black folk sat down to talk about.

FEAGINS: As a teenager, Hurst was involved in lunch counter sit-ins in downtown Jacksonville in 1960, just one year after the school board named Forrest High. That same summer, a riot now known as Ax Handle Saturday forced the segregated community to talk. One afternoon, hundreds of angry white men armed with baseball bats and ax handles attacked the students who had been peacefully demonstrating.

City leaders finally had to confront the racial tensions. Though much has changed since then, the name of Forrest High School remained. Hurst was proud to see that more than two-thirds of current Forrest students voted for the name change.

HURST: And it reminds me 50 years ago plus, when we did some things in downtown, for whatever reasons, that adults would not do.

FEAGINS: There was a failed effort to change the name in 2008. It went down five to two on a racially split vote. But now there's a new superintendent, an entirely different school board, and a coalition of non-profit and philanthropic organizations that have come together to focus on education. Trey Czar, who heads the education advocacy group Jacksonville Public Education Fund, says much has changed in a few short years.

TREY CZAR: I think there's a recognition in the city of Jacksonville that public schools are fundamentally important to our future. So there's clearly a focus on working with every single child to make sure he or she can succeed in our public school system.

FEAGINS: But in some ways, Jacksonville is still divided - by the St. Johns River. North and West of the river are the schools with more low income students and students of color. South and East are the newer suburbs with populations that tend to be more well-off, white and well educated. Achievement patterns tend to mirror the demographic differences.

And though graduation rates for black students have improved greatly in the past year, the numbers still lag behind the overall rate. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti believes the Forrest High vote removes a distraction from the district's mission.

VITTI: It restores faith in part of the community that maybe didn't always feel that we were equitable in our decisions.

FEAGINS: Students and community members will now vote on a new name for the school. And a school board policy now prohibits naming schools after people. For NPR News , I'm Karen Feagins in Jacksonville.

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