The Confederate myth
Robert E. Lee High School
Jacksonville has six schools named after Confederate figures, and in the past had a seventh. This has been a major source of controversy since the later 20th century, resulting in many school board debates and votes over the years. With new campaigns to change the names proceeding, the topic is back in the spotlight. And it’s time for Duval County Public Schools to step up and rename them.
As with Confederate monuments, supporters of keeping the Confederate school names often equate removing them with erasing history. In reality, a look at when and why the names were chosen shows that it’s the officials who put them in place who are guilty of attempting to erase Jacksonville’s true Civil War history.
During the war, Jacksonville was a hotbed of Union sentiment, with many whites and virtually all African Americans supporting the Union side. After the war, African-Americans remained a major force in local politics as late as 1888 before the state implemented Jim Crow laws and racial segregation became the law of the land. Every one of Jacksonville’s Confederate-named schools date to that later period, and the names say much more about the time in which they were chosen than they do about the Civil War.
Jacksonville’s Confederate schools: a chronology
In the Duval County school system, Jim Crow laws were in place roughly from the late 19th century until the schools were finally desegregated in 1971.
1920s: Nadir of Jim Crow
Kirby-Smith Middle School, the first Jacksonville school named after a Confederate figure.
Two of Jacksonville’s Confederate-named schools date to the 1920s, toward the end of the period known as the “nadir of American race relations.” Both were whites-only schools:
- 1922: Kirby-Smith Middle School, named for St. Augustine-born Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith.
- 1928: Robert E. Lee High School, named for the leading Confederate general.
1950s and 60s: After Brown v. Board
Westside High School, until 2014 named Nathan B. Forrest High School, the single most controversial school name in Duval County.
Jacksonville saw an explosion of new Confederate school names between the years 1959 and 1968. The context is Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. Like other Southern communities, Jacksonville defied the ruling and continued expanding its racially segregated school system. At the suggestion of groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the school board named five of its new whites-only schools after Confederates:
- 1959, Nathan B. Forrest High School, named for a Confederate general. This proved an especially controversial choice due to Forrest’s role in a massacre of Black U.S. soldiers and his early leadership in the Ku Klux Klan. It was renamed Westside High School in 2014.
- 1961, Jefferson Davis Middle School, named for the President of the Confederate States of America. It opened within a few miles of Forrest High.
- 1965, Stonewall Jackson Elementary School, named for another prominent Confederate general.
- 1966, J.E.B. Stuart Middle School, named for Confederate general James Ewell Brown Stuart.
- 1968, Joseph Finegan Elementary School, named for the Confederate general who led troops in eastern Florida, including at the Battle of Olustee.
Of these names, only Kirby Smith and Finegan have any connection to Northeast Florida; the others are simply random famous Confederates with no particular local connection. Given the timing of the school names and the fact that all were segregated, whites-only schools – with most named after the Supreme Court rule segregation illegal – it’s impossible to believe that they were named for any reason other than taking a swipe at the civil rights movement. For those resentful of the federal government challenging the local racial hierarchy, what symbol of defiance could be better than the Confederates?
Change the names
The City of Jacksonville removed its Confederate monuments on June 9, 2020, including the former monument in James Weldon Johnson Park. It’s time for the school board to follow suit.
Five of the remaining six schools with Confederate names now have student bodies that are majority African-American. The students are leading the charge to rename the schools, and the school board should listen.
Removing Confederate names from Duval County schools isn’t a matter of “erasing history.” To an extent, it’s not even about who the individuals were and what they did – the names were chosen many decades later, for reasons more related to 20th century racial politics than to the period of the Civil War. Changing the names doesn’t change the facts of history, it just extracts a lingering shard of Jim Crow still embedded in Jacksonville’s public school system.
The time is now. Change the names.
Editorial by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.