Don’t sanitize our history
In our opinion
11-03-2008

Here we go again.

In Jacksonville, Fla., the Duval County School Board is considering whether to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School to Firestone High.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, as most people know, was the slave owner, slave trader, Confederate general and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Firestone is the name of the street on which the school is located.

The school, once all white, is today overwhelmingly black.

Taking the names of Confederate soldiers and officials off public sites has long been the aim of a relatively small number of folks who feel that monuments should not be dedicated to people whose conduct does not conform to modern moral and ethical standards.

Changing the names has been opposed by Confederate heritage groups and others who argue that those so honored should be remembered for the great things they did. Likewise, they should not besmirched for shortcomings that were products of the times in which they lived.

In the middle are a wide assortment of people with opinions that might have been best summed up by one of the school’s black students who, speaking for his classmates, said that the name was "not a big deal to us."

All this considered, let us make a suggestion.

Rather than take the name off the school, leave it in place and use it as a teaching tool.

When Forrest High students take American history, make sure they study Nathan Bedford Forrest as a product of his time. Yes, he was a slaveholder and a slave trader. So have them ask themselves why was one occupation admired in the Old South and the other looked down on by many?

Then they should consider his career in the Confederate army. Why are his tactics still studied today? And address the controversy over the "massacre" of black Union troops at Fort Pillow by soldiers under Forrest’s command — something historians debate to this day.

Have the students consider his actions in the creation of the KKK. Was he simply the "honorary" Grand Wizard or more? What role did he play in disbanding the organization? What did the congressional investigation of the Klan conclude about the part he played?

And, finally, students should discuss why the United Daughters of the Confederacy suggested that the school be named for Forrest when it opened with an all-white student body in the 1950s.

In other words, here is a marvelous opportunity to teach students, not just history but how history has been interpreted and used.

If the name is still there, all the better for the teaching.

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