Nate Monroe: Enough already! Rename Jacksonville's Confederate schools
COMMENTARY | Jacksonville, aided by civic institutions like this very newspaper, has historically done a pretty good job simultaneously suppressing its rich Civil Rights history and glossing over its racist track record with a friendly chamber-of-commerce shine, and thus some people in town are under the mistaken impression a handful of Duval County's public schools were named after a rogues' gallery of Confederate leaders for reasons other than contempt for the city's Black residents.
Jacksonville was neither a consequential theater in the Civil War nor a particularly valued place in the minds of Confederates. In the years prior, this port city attracted merchants from the North who imported their pro-Union sentiments in large enough numbers they were on the verge of attaining local political power. During the war, the Union occupied the city four times. Confederates had their share of looting and burning the town as they scurried away. The closest semblance to an event of actual significance took place an hour west in Baker County.
There is no particular historical reason, in other words, to have a school named after Robert E. Lee in Jacksonville. And, it turns out, history — or, rather, the sober recognition of it — is not why these schools possess such names.
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Jacksonville public schools, an editorial in The Jaxson astutely noted, acquired their Confederate names during two separate waves, decades apart, of racism and revisionism in the 20th Century. Two local schools, including Lee, were named in the 1920s, the Lost Cause era during which Confederate sympathizers were remarkably successful in romanticizing the incompetence, fecklessness and brutality of the old South's leaders into something akin to Arthurian legend. The second and even more obviously insidious series of Confederate school names proliferated from 1959 through 1968, when white politicians were openly rebelling against desegregation and the Civil Rights movement.
There is no ambiguity here: Jacksonville has public schools named after Confederate leaders because past generations of city leaders were at war against the modernizing world. They remain in place today because some people here are still fighting that war.
The Duval County School Board is mired in the torturous, months-long process of re-naming these schools, which includes a board vote to start it all, an election at each of the schools, a staff recommendation, another board vote.
It's understandable schools officials desire a formalized process for school renamings, but in hindsight it's clear this fight over Confederate names has gone on too long. This isn't a matter of semantics or aesthetic taste. These aren't complicated historical figures with a rich tapestry of contributions to the nation's history. There are no mysteries. The arguments against are bad-faith, poorly informed or simply hogwash.
This is about simple decency. Most of these schools have majority-Black student bodies. Jacksonville is growing up. The world is moving on. So too will the aging and upset alumni once these schools are renamed.
Anyone truly hung up on the need to honor this random smattering of Confederate generals with few local connections is free to find a more private way to exercise their gratitude. Just keep that demented hagiography out of Jacksonville's public schools.
It is, yes, a symbolic thing and perhaps not the most substantive thing, but it's still a necessary thing. There are other priorities the school board must tend to, of course. That argues all the more for its urgency.
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For a town in possession of so much ambition to join the ranks of America's great cities, Jacksonville has displayed a stunning capacity to hem and haw on easily fixable but significant issues like this. An earlier school board managed, in 2014, to finally strip Nathan Bedford Forrest — a Confederate general and KKK grand wizard — off what is today Westside High School. The name change didn't erase the pages out of prior yearbooks or cause alumni to pop out of existence: It happened and it was fine and the city is a better place for it. Can we finish the job already?
It might help if the city's civic and political leaders offered more public support for the school board's efforts. The boosters who get so upset when "naysayers" criticize their pet projects often have so little to say about the issues that actually harm economic development. Here's a newsflash: Racism isn't a good look.
This isn't complicated. In fact, it's one of the easiest wins out there for a city with ambition to be something more. Just get it done.
Nate Monroe's City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.