Jacksonville to change six school names honoring Confederate leaders

“Some opponents say we’re trying to erase history and we know that’s not the case because the true history has never been told. That’s essentially what this struggle is all about," said community activist Ben Frazier about the school renames in Jacksonville, Florida.

After a long campaign led by grassroots racial justice organizations, a school district in Jacksonville Florida will change the names of six schools bearing the names of Confederate figures, the Duval County school board recently announced.

“At this point in time it’s important to start thinking about who we want to be,” said Duval County public schools board chair Elizabeth Andersen. “As a board, we were listening to our community members and wanting to move forward so that every student that walks in our building understands that they are respected, that they are capable of achieving their highest potential, and that all of their lives matter.”

There are 103 public schools named for Confederate leaders in the U.S, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC also notes that the years coinciding with the emergence of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement saw the greatest rise in the dedication of Confederate monuments and other symbols. 

That history is evident in the six schools set to be renamed in Jacksonville and their founding years: Kirby-Smith Middle School (1923), Joseph Finegan Elementary School (1968), Stonewall Jackson Elementary School (1965), Jefferson Davis Middle School (1961), J.E.B. Stuart Middle School and Robert E. Lee High School (1928).  

Local activists at a ‘Stop Playing Games, Change The Names’ rally. (Courtesy of the NCOJ).

“We’re activists and activists typically feel like progress doesn’t happen fast enough,” Ben Frazier, founder of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, tells theGrio.  “But we realized early on that our campaign could not be sustained purely on the basis of agitation. Marching, rallies, demonstrations, etc is how we got the system’s attention to begin with but canvassing is what led to transformation.” 

This spring, NCOJ members canvassed in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools in question, wearing t-shirts and asking residents to set up “Change the Name!” yard signs. The SPLC also supported the campaign by paying for a banner on interstate I-10. Other groups including Take Em Down JAX, the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, the Women’s March Alliance of North Florida joined protests.

The “Stop Playing Games, Change the Names!” billboard sponsored by the SPLC. (Courtesy of NCOJ)

In late May, school stakeholders including alumni and residents voted to rename six out of nine schools in the city, and Duval County Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene made a recommendation backing the voter results. Stakeholders voted to keep the names of the other three: Andrew Jackson High School, Jean Ribault Middle School, and Jean Ribault High School. 

At a recent rally held, Robert E. Lee High School teacher Amy Donofrio expressed her gratitude for the voter results. As theGrio previously reported, Donofrio was suspended and eventually reassigned after she refused to remove a Black Lives Matter flag from her classroom. 

“It gives me hope that we are finally moving our city in a direction that demonstrates that our youth and their voices and their humanity matters because they do,” said Donoforio. 

Like in other parts of the country, the movement to take down Confederate symbols in Jacksonville has been ongoing for years but the process to get these public schools renamed took nearly a year. Those who demanded the renames cited the well being of Black students who attend these schools, which have significant stake. The student population at Robert E. Lee high school for instance, is roughly 70 percent Black

Frazier, who is a Jacksonville native spoke to the impact school names have on their students and community. “The names of William Raines, Mary McLeod Bethune, James Weldon Johnson, etc, these are great people of color that as children we had an opportunity to look up to and aspire to something greater than where we were,” says Frazier. 

“Now imagine, the flipside of that is going to a school named after a man like Robert E. Lee who said slavery was ordained by God. Imagine going to a school named after Andrew Jackson–a man who architected the Indian Removal Act which resulted in more than 4,000 men, women and children dying.” 

While the campaign has made progress, Frazier says his organization is not giving the other three schools that were up for a vote a pass and will continue pressuring officials to change those names as well. 

“Some opponents said we’re trying to erase history and we know that’s not the case because the true history has never been told,” says Frazier.  “That’s essentially what this struggle is all about. We don’t want to continue to tell his story, we want to tell the whole truth.”

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