By Susan Cooper Eastman
JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - A north Florida school board has voted unanimously to change the name of a local high school honoring a Confederate general who made a fortune as a slave trader and was linked to the Ku Klux Klan.
"It's time to move forward with the renaming of Nathan B. Forrest High ... it's time to really put it to bed," said School Board member Constance Hall, who asked the Board to finally begin the process of changing the name on Friday.
Hall and the board's other African American member were joined in the 7-0 vote by four whites and a Hispanic member in voting to change the name.
Four Jacksonville schools are named after Confederate heroes, including Robert E. Lee High School, as well as the city's downtown square.
The school's name was chosen in 1959 at the suggestion of the Daughters of the Confederacy as the group readied for the 100th anniversary of Florida joining the Confederacy, at the start of the Civil War that pitted the pro-slavery southern states against President Abraham Lincoln and the Union army.
Changing the name of Nathan B. Forrest High School has come up several times. In 2008, the vote to keep the name broke along racial lines with two black members voting to change the name and five white board members voting against.
This time, a Jacksonville parent, Omotayo Richmond, took up the cause on social media with a change.org petition signed by more than 176,000 people, generating widespread media coverage and support from civil rights groups.
"Now is the time to right a historical wrong. African-American Jacksonville students shouldn't have to attend a high school named for someone who slaughtered and terrorized their ancestors for one more school year," Richmond wrote in his petition appeal.
Forrest made a fortune as a slave trader in Tennessee before joining the Confederacy. Troops under his command massacred more than 400 Union soldiers who surrendered at Fort Pillow, Tennessee. A Congressional inquiry in 1871 looked into Forrest's association with the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.
The school's future name now lies in the hands of the Duval County Superintendent of Schools, Nikolai Vitti, due to report to the school board in December or January with a recommendation on changing the name, as well as present possible alternatives.
Forrest's defenders call the effort to change the name part of a wider move to erase all remnants of the Confederacy. They say slavery was legal in Forrest's day and he was pardoned for his part in the war, and that at the end of his life his views on blacks changed and he supported black suffrage and freedom.
"Where will this ever end?" Bodie Catlin, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, asked the School Board, raising his hands in the air for emphasis.
"If you all go along with this, believe me, they are going to go after every Confederate general name in Jacksonville," he told the School Board. "It's not going to stop there. There are people who want to change the name of Jacksonville," he added, noting that Andrew Jackson owned slaves and led the slaughter of Seminole Indians.
Other schools named for Confederate heroes in Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Alabama have taken steps toward renaming. In February, the Memphis City Council renamed three downtown parks to remove the Confederate association, including Nathan B. Forrest Park where the general is buried.
(Editing by David Adams and Nick Zieminski)