by David Safier
I'll see your "Washington Redskins" controversy and raise you one. Florida's N.B. Forrest High, a school with a majority African American student body, is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a general in the Conferate army responsible for the massacre of huge numbers of African American troops during one of the most despicable incidents in the Civil War, then after the war became one of the early members of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan and its Grand Wizard. And yet there's debate over whether the school should change its name. As of now, it hasn't come up for a vote.
The Jacksonville paper carrying the story said some people question whether Forrest was really the bad guy he's made out to be. Let's say for the sake of argument he wasn't such a bad guy. Let's say, even though he was a rich slave owner and slave trader, he wasn't responsible for a massacre during the Civil War, and the KKK was just a "gentlemen's club" when he joined. That still leaves plenty of reasons to rename the school. But it looks like Forrest deserves every bit of his bad reputation.
I'm no historian. But biographies on Wikipedia and civilwar.org tend to agree on the main facts, as do other websites. First, Forrest was a self made millionaire, making his fortune on the backs of slaves, as a plantation owner and a slave trader. Next, he volunteered to join the Confederate Army and soon moved up to general because of his military skill. At the Battle of Fort Pillow, Forrest's troops outnumbered the Union soldiers and killed a huge number of the soldiers, many of whom were escaped slaves. Forrest claimed the Union troops never officially surrendered, but Union and Confederate soldiers disagreed. This is from a letter a Confederate soldier sent to his sister after the battle.
"The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor, deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. I, with several others, tried to stop the butchery, and at one time had partially succeeded, but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick of blood and the firing ceased."
Historians have disputed the particulars but tend to agree that the massacre took place. And its importance in African American history is indisputable.
“Remember Fort Pillow” became a rallying-cry for African-American soldiers throughout the Union Army.
As for his KKK affiliation, the kindest thing you can say is, when Forrest joined, the group's purpose was to persuade African Americans that the old ways of the antebellum south were preferable to their post-Civil War status. And that description most probably glosses over the violent actions group members engaged in when Forrest joined. Forrest became the KKK's Grand Wizard, but later quit the organization. Apologists say it was because he didn't like the group's increasingly violent tactics. More likely, however, Forrest wanted to bring a more military order to the group and failed, so he quit.
The only good thing to be said about the man is that, later in his life after he had lost his fortune, he became somewhat more enlightened in his views about African Americans. But a late-in-life semi-conversion is hardly enough to wipe out Forrest's earlier actions. The school should have been renamed long ago.