Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What's In A Name, Changing Attitudes

On Sunday evening, I was writing my weekly football blog post when I made an aside comment about the fact that my alma mater was playing Westside High School which had a recent name change. I didn't think it appropriate in a sports blog to get serious about what is a social issue so here are my thoughts on the subject.

Westside High School was formally known as Nathan B. Forrest High School and the mascot name was Rebels. Confederate battle flags were prominent at sporting events and school activities. Nathan B. Forrest was a Confederate cavalry general and prominent member of the KKK although he later separated from the Klan. After a few years of protests, lobbying and petitions the school name was changed to the generic Westside. The school is indeed on the westside of town. The mascot is now the Wolverine. That makes no sense, there are no Wolverines in Florida, it is a cold weather animal. I'm assuming the name was chosen because of the alliteration. 

The original name was a bit of a push back to the civil rights movement and Supreme Court decision that determined that "separate but equal" was not really equal for the black schools. The original students had voted to call the school Valhalla with a Viking as the mascot. The then racist good old boy Duval County school board decided to overrule the students' wishes and name the school after a Confederate general and KKK Grand Wizard. It was their symbolic defiance of those liberal Supreme Court justices who had the audacity to rule that Negroes were equal to upstanding southern white folks. Jacksonville was a very racist city in the 50's and 60's. A full blown proponent of separate facilities for blacks and whites. I left Jacksonville for college in 1965 and for good by 1970 except for visits and it was still a racist city. I returned in the early 80's for a couple of years and found that it was still behind the times on racial issues. It was one of the reasons I jumped at an employment opportunity that took me out of Jax.  

Over the years, the once all white school had become predominantly black and the name was a constant issue. 

This name change may be the right choice in this situation, especially given how the N.B. Forrest name originally came about. Still, let's be careful about erasing all vestiges of the Civil War and our past acceptance of slavery. It is a significant part of our history. It is always dangerous to judge those who lived in the past based on today's standards and mores. I doubt any of us over a certain age would fare very well in an examination of our attitudes when we were in our teens, 20's or 30's. Nor would or parents and grandparents, who we loved, seem all that tolerant and accepting. History, both the nations and our own, is not always pretty. We are human and we make mistakes, sometimes individually and sometimes as a society. 

If you grew up white in 1860 South Carolina, Alabama or Florida there is a 99.9% chance that you were a racist by today's standards. If you grew up white in Jacksonville Florida in the 1910's, 20's and 30's there is a 99.7% chance you were a racist. Those were the people who ran the city and school board in the 50's and 60's when Forrest High School was named. It was a mistake on the cusp of a change in attitudes and laws. Jacksonville was still a mostly segregated city. 

I don't really know what kind of man N.B. Forrest was. I also don't know what went on in Abraham Lincoln's head. I suspect that both would be deemed racists by today's standards. 

Be careful what you wish for. Someday your beliefs and heroes may be out of vogue. Then you may be judged a bigot, racist, homophobic or any of a dozen other less than desirable beliefs. 1760 is different than 1860 which is different than 1960 which is different than 2015 and they will all be different than 2060. 

We can not rename every school, park, building, street, bridge and whatever else is named after someone who has a connection to the Confederacy or slavery. We can't remove every statue or monument. If we do, we have to expunge most of our founding father's memorials too. Was George Washington really much different than Robert E.Lee? Was Thomas Jefferson less of a racist than Jefferson Davis? Where would we stop with the social cleansing? Although flawed, these men were leaders during their time. I've read considerably about our Civil War. Like all eras, there were good people, bad people and many somewhere in between on both sides. The attitudes of Lee and Grant were not that different about Blacks and slavery. The Union forces weren't fighting to abolish slavery, especially at the start of the war. They were fighting to keep the United States united and also just defending themselves. 

These are not simple issues and rational discourse and solutions are almost impossible when the news and social media fan the flames. I no longer live in Jacksonville so I am not privy to the day to day events of the Forrest to Westside name change. I was however around when the school was named. Given the circumstances of how the original name came about and change in the makeup of the student body, I think the school name change was appropriate in this case. Still, can we do something about that Wolverines mascot name?


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