Part Two of a series; read Part One (What’s in a Name?)
Bette Midler sang about a rose and what it might be: river, razor, hunger, or flower? As Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT) continues to ponder the school renaming controversy in Jacksonville, Florida, the song comes to mind as a companion to the famous Shakespeare quote, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Indeed, what’s in a name? In Jacksonville, apparently a lot and that smell isn’t something sweet.
Several years ago, the city had a Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. That’s right, the founder of the KKK, the general who orchestrated the Fort Pillow Massacre, and an erstwhile slave trader, actually had a high school named for him. Originally, it was supposed to be Valhalla High School (the students voted for this name,) but then the powers-that-be of Jacksonville got involved, the Daughters of the Confederacy among them, and the school board disregarded the students and went with the Forrest name.
Finally, in 2013, after going through the name-change process, the Duval County School Board approved a name change and Forrest High School became Westside High School.
In a foreshadowing of today’s controversy, the same issues are in play. Alumni (white) whined about history and the need to honor their heritage; others pressed for a reckoning of the past and the need for a school that did not have a name that embodied domestic terrorism of black people.
Of the six schools up for renaming (GOT is setting aside for now the other three schools whose names are problematical for other reasons,) it is Robert E. Lee High School that is attracting the most controversy, the most push-back–but that is far too mild an adjective to describe what is happening as at least one white person showed up at the community meetings to proclaim that we were better off when black people were slaves–yes, that really happened–GOT is not linking the original footage as it is too offensive.
Why Robert E. Lee? Is it that Lee is the only high school on the agenda for renaming? Or do we need to think about the mythologized Lee that was formed as Fitzhugh Lee, his nephew and a Confederate officer, and Jubal Early, a Confederate general, promulgated the theory of the Lost Cause as a way to understand the Civil War, the South’s loss, and the excusing of Robert E. Lee from culpability of losing the war.
Yes, that dirty Longstreet, who procrastinated from sending thousands of men into a suicide mission in Gettysburg and later took a federal job, it was his fault. Don’t blame the sovereign saint of the South, Robert E. Lee. The Lost Cause.
To understand the importance of Robert E. Lee to the South, you need to read these words of Edward Porter Alexander, who was an officer who served under Lee’s command, who recalled these words spoken to Lee at the end, “There is no country [Confederacy or South]. There has been no country, General, for a year or more. YOU [GOT emphasis] are the country to these men … If you demand the sacrifice, there are still left thousands of us who will die for you … if you so announce, no man, or government, or people will gainsay your decision.”
Another memoir by a Confederate general recalled Lee’s agonized decision to surrender and the morning when, as he dithered over whether he had the authority to surrender or needed approval from the Jefferson Davis, an old man told him, “You, Sir, are the South! Make your decision. We have lost. Let these men go home to plow their fields and resume their lives.” [Editorial note: GOT is still searching through his library for the citation.]
The controversy over renaming Forrest High School was only a warm-up for the mythologized figure who was built up into the embodiment of the ideal South of the past.
For everyone who believes in their Southern heritage as their right and their future, the renaming of Robert E. Lee High School is their Gettysburg. This time, they intend to win.