Kansas City consultant Donovan Mouton nearly graduated high school as a Hickman Mills Cougar.
But at the end of his sophomore year, his father’s military career moved the family from South Kansas City to Jacksonville, Fla. Mouton wound up among the African-American students who had to graduate from a school named for a slave trader and Confederate general.
Mouton was part of the 1976 graduating class of Nathan B. Forrest High School.
The school mascot was the Rebels. During football games, the band played “Dixie” for every touchdown. Students couldn’t do anything about it. Mouton remembers that they tried, but nothing came of the efforts. Not for the school’s first 55 years.
The building is now Westside High School, a decision the school board approved in 2013.
A project by the news website Vocativ found at least 188 public and charter schools nationally are named for prominent Confederates or places associated with them. And likely missed a few.
Moves to change such names are good, but they must come with reflection and insight. Glossing over past history or merely creating a black market for Confederate flags by stripping them from the shelves of retailers shouldn’t be the goal.
Purging the U.S. of memorials to slave owners, Klan leaders and Confederates isn’t the same as finding reconciliation for racism.
“History doesn’t need to be honored by naming buildings, flag poles or naming streets, but remembered in museums,” Mouton said. “Cape Town, South Africa, has demonstrated a good way to preserve and educate about the atrocities of racism and slavery, rather than promote or glorify.”
There is a greater challenge here. The Civil War is our shared American history. We shouldn’t want to erase it. The problems stem from not telling that history honestly, or accurately.
Like how Forrest’s name landed on Mouton’s high school as a reaction to desegregation. People didn’t want to admit that later, claiming instead that the decision was an element of Southern pride.
Forrest grew his fortune as a slave trader and plantation owner, buying and selling human flesh even after it was illegal. He was tapped as an honorary Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. And he’s believed to have ordered the slaughter of hundreds of black Union soldiers after they had surrendered.
News accounts have noted that when the building opened in 1959, the predominantly white student body settled on Valhalla High School. It was the Daughters of the Confederacy, angered by the court-ordered desegregation ruling, that pushed the Forrest name through.
So much of why we struggle with racism today is layered atop a false sense of superiority and falsified history. A window has opened to change that reality.
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