When Jacksonville residents pushed to change the name of Nathan B. Forrest High school, their effort quickly attracted national attention — and provided a short history lesson on the Confederate cavalry commander and early member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Their "No More KKK high school" petition drive that started this summer also cast a light on other schools across the South named for Confederate war leaders and the history behind their monikers.
Orange County has two such schools, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Middle schools, neither of which has prompted any debate, at least in recent years.
The two Orlando campuses are the only local schools with prominent Confederate names, according to the public school database at the National Center for Education Statistics. And those generals are viewed today as historical figures of a decidedly different sort than Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a slave trader before the Civil War, accused of war crimes during the war and an early leader in the Klan.
But whether viewed as controversial or not, these school names share a common history, experts say. They mostly were assigned to Southern campuses by white-run school boards after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 school desegregation case.
They were part of a "resurgence of Confederate identity" that emerged as part of the South's resistance to the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools, said Bill Link, a history professor at the University of Florida who studies Southern history.
Such names were symbols of "white defiance that was prevalent in a lot of the South, including Florida, which was more of a Southern place in those days than it is now," Link added.
What was then Lee Junior High opened in 1956, for example, and Orlando Sentinel photos from that year show students and the school principal in the courtyard raising a Confederate flag.
These days, the school has a student population that is 60 percent black, a black principal and is part of a diverse district run by a black superintendent. Though a caricature of General Lee is still found on the school's website, few use the full Robert E. Lee name or pay much attention to its history.
Three Orange County School Board members said no one has approached them about changing either Lee or Jackson's names or even discussed the issue with them.
"I've never heard any parent question or be upset or have an issue with it at all," said Jackie Kelvington, the president of Lee's PTSA.
The Orlando mother said she has no problem with the school name that is "part of our American history."
But Kelvington said if Jacksonville residents are offended by the Forrest name, she hopes they are successful in their quest for a change
"That's why we live in a Democracy," she said. "That's' why we live in this country. We have the right to express our thoughts and advocate for what we are concerned about. I hope that their School Board would listen to them."
Those pursuing the name change in Jacksonville say the Forrest name is just too egregious to remain. Duval County has four other schools with Confederate names, the most of any Florida school district, according to the national website. There are fewer than 10 such schools in Florida, though a firm count is hard to come by.
Duval also has schools named for Jackson, Lee, Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stuart.
The Nathan B. Forrest name was picked in 1959, according to published reports, at the behest of the Daughters of the Confederacy.
A previous effort to change its name failed in 2008 when a divided school board voted 5-2 along racial lines to keep it.
Former Forrest High Principal Billy Parker was pleased by the vote, according to Fox News. Parker said Forrest's views about slavery changed after the war. "I am thrilled to death that the school board voted it down to leave it Nathan Bedford Forrest," Parker said.
"The thing about it is, Forrest, at the time he was alive, slavery was the thing to do and he was involved in it at the very beginning," he said. "But when the war ended he was one of the strongest ones to do away with slavery, and they never mention that and the fact that he was a good man."