Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nate Has Left the Building

Ex-slave owner & Confederate general Forrest
Congrats are certainly due to former Long Island resident Ty Richmond, after all it was his petition and massive online signature response by which helped sway the Duval County School Board to come up with a new name for Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville Florida.

Back in July Richmond started the latest in a long line of petitions to change the name of the school, reaching 162,150 signatures within 5 months and convincing the board to unanimously take this controversial American figure's name off the school starting in 2014.

It's a pretty significant media story around the globe and a change with immense meaning for a school with a 60% black majority in its student body.

It was 55 years ago during highly charged public debates over school integration in Jacksonville that the school was intentionally named after Forrest at the suggestion of the local Daughters of the Confederacy - (Here's an interesting perspective on the DOC from 2001.)

There's no question that Lt General Nathan Bedford Forrest distinguished himself during the Civil War as an innovative and cunning cavalry officer who earned respect for his unusual and non-traditional cavalry tactics in the field.

 Forrest made a small fortune as a planter and as a slave trader prior to enlisting in the Civil War.

He's actually one of the few Civil War officers (Confederate or Union) to rise from the ranks as an enlisted man to a lieutenant general who eventually commanded an entire division. But it's his political views, perspective on the issue of slavery and war record that make his name synonymous with the violent racism against African-Americans that was so common in the post-Reconstruction era southern United States.

Forrest was accused of war crimes during the Battle of Fort Pillow which took place along the Mississippi River near Henning, Tennessee on April 12, 1864.

Confederate troops under his command defeated Union troops in a battle that lasted for hours. According to multiple eyewitness accounts from soldiers on both sides who fought there, around 4pm as both black and white Union soldiers and officers lay down their arms and attempted to surrender, Forrest ordered them massacred.

Between 4pm and dusk, approximately 300 Union soldiers were bayoneted or shot; many of them while pleading for mercy. According to Civil War historian David Eicher, author of "The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War" the Fort Pillow massacre "marked one of the bleakest, saddest events in American military history."

Union commanders were so incensed over the incident, they refused prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy for the duration of the war; and it almost certainly sparked revenge killings of Confederate soldiers by Union troops.

Forrest is often cited as one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, but his association with the group is actually quite murky. He was a very influential leading figure within the group and moved amongst the upper echelon of the ranks of its membership; but he did not start the KKK as is often reported.

Regardless of who he was or what he believed, his name clearly belongs in the curriculum of the school and merits study as a matter of great historic relevance.

But the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest was specifically chosen for the school in 1959 to antagonize supporters of school integration in Jacksonville and elsewhere. Given what is definitively known about him and what he represents, that name is simply not appropriate on a place of learning. 

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