A Florida school board voted late Monday night to keep the name of a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader at a majority black high school, despite opposition from a black board member who said the school's namesake was a "terrorist and racist."
After hearing about three hours of public comments, Duval County School Board members voted 5-2 to the retain the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. The board's two black members cast the only votes to change the name.
"(Forrest) was a terrorist and a racist," argued board member Brenda Priestly Jackson, who is black.
Betty Burney, the board chairman and the board's other black member, also voted against retaining the name.
"It is time to turn the page and get beyond where we are," she said.
Board member Tommy Hazouri voted to keep the name and said it is difficult to know "who the real Forrest is."
The board listened to passionate arguments from those on both sides. More than 140 people crowded into the meeting room, with another 20 watching the meeting on a television in the lobby.
Many urged a name change, saying the Forrest name was an insult.
"Nathan Bedford Forrest was part of the Ku Klux Klan, no matter how you put it. Nathan Bedford Forrest needs to be changed," said Stanley Scott, who is black.
But several spoke favorably of the general, saying the perceptions that Forrest was an evil man who ordered the massacre of Union troops were incorrect.
June Cooper, who graduated from Forrest in 1970, said some people wanted to wipe out Southern history.
"He was a good man," said Cooper, who is White. "He was a military genius."
Despite her opposition, the board's chairwoman noted that the intensely debated issue could distract from students' education and had even prompted one person to receive death threats for wanting the name changed.
"The naming of a school should not take precedence over someone's life," she said.
Some had suggested naming the school after the street it sits on, or honoring a graduate whose plane was shot down in 1991 over Iraq on the first night of Operation Desert Storm.
Forrest High School, which has received two consecutive "F" grades on state assessment tests, opened as an all-white school in the 1950s. Its name was suggested by the Daughters of the Confederacy, who saw it as a protest to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eventually integrated the nation's public schools.
But now more than half Forrest High's students are black.
The issue has come up several times during the past half-century, but the School Board has never changed the name. Jacksonville has three other schools named after Confederate generals, but it also has schools named after civil rights icons.
Born poor in Chapel Hill, Tenn., in 1821, Forrest amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader, importing Africans long after the practice had been made illegal. At 40, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate army at the outset of the Civil War, rising to a cavalry general in a year.
Some accounts accused Forrest of ordering black prisoners to be massacred after a victory at Tennessee's Fort Pillow in 1864, though historians question the validity of the claims.
In 1867, the newly formed Klan elected Forrest its honorary Grand Wizard or national leader, but he publicly denied being involved. In 1869, he ordered the Klan to disband because of the members' increasing violence. Two years later, a congressional investigation concluded his involvement had been limited to his attempt to disband it.
After his death in 1877, memorials to him sprung up throughout the South, particularly in Tennessee. A mounted statue of Forrest and the graves of the general and his wife are in a Memphis park bearing his name.
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