One high school is named after the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan; one college is named after a proponent of genocidal germ warfare against Native Americans. Is either one worse than the other? Should either one change its name?
I was shocked to see that in Jacksonville, Florida there is a Nathaniel Bedford Forrest High School-named after a man known in my mind primarily as the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest was a celebrated Confederate cavalry officer often connected with the massacre at Fort Pillow. However, his role in the Klan is what sticks with me perhaps because of Forrest Gump. In the movie Forrest explains his name saying, ”Momma named me after the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest… She said we was related to him in some way. And, what he did was, he started up this club called the Ku Klux Klan. They’d all dress up in their robes and their bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something. They’d even put bedsheets on their horses and ride around.”
Given all this background, I could not believe a school was still named after Forrest. Doing some more research I found that the school is majority black and that there had been a 2006 petition to change the name but the school board had turned it down. As a liberal northerner, I just could not imagine a school today being named after Forrest.
Then I thought about my biases. I went to Amherst College, competed for the school for four years and wear Amherst gear with pride. However, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the school’s namesake has been implicated in one of the earliest known incidents of biological warfare. He was the commanding general of British forces near the end of the French and Indian War, and in that capacity oversaw plans to distribute smallpox infected blankets to the Indians. For example he wrote a letter discussing, ”Measures to be taken as would Bring about the Total Extirpation of those Indian Nations” and asked in postscript to another letter, “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”
Why am I shocked and dismayed by Nathaniel Bedford Forrest High School but not particularly disturbed by my alma mater Amherst College? Perhaps it is a matter of familiarity with Amherst, or could it be a northern bias against Civil War figures and Southern culture. Could it be a matter of publicity: more people know Forrest than Amherst? Could it be a matter of legacy; the Klan went on to perpetrate many injustices and brutal crimes and is still around today, while Amherst’s scheme at most involved a limited number of items and there is actually uncertainty as to if it was ever really implemented.
I still believe that Nathaniel Bedford Forrest High School is in greater need of a name change, but I still cannot quite put a finger on why and cannot be sure my assumptions in this situation are valid.