Hank Aaron’s Name Will Replace a Confederate General’s on an Atlanta School

A public school in Atlanta carrying the name of a Confederate general who was an original grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan will be renamed for Hank Aaron, the baseball legend who broke racial barriers and the career home run record.

In an unanimous vote on Monday, the city’s school board approved removing the name of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from Forrest Hill Academy and calling the alternative school the Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy.

Aaron supplanted Babe Ruth as baseball’s home run king in 1974 — a record he held for more than three decades — but endured hate mail and death threats during his Hall of Fame career, one that began in the Negro leagues. Aaron, who played all but two of his 23 major league seasons for Braves, first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta, died in January at age 86.

Under a school district policy in Atlanta, there is a five-year waiting period after a notable person dies until a school building can be named for that person. But the policy can be waived through a unanimous vote by the school board, which occurred in the case of Aaron. The renaming of the school, a public alternative school for middle and high school students, will take effect this year.

School board members said Forrest’s legacy was at odds with the community and its values.

“The South has a lot to offer with respect to historical teachings and oppression,” Michelle D. Olympiadis, a school board member, said during the meeting. “It’s very important that we understand our history.”

The name change, which was reported earlier by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is emblematic of a nationwide reckoning on symbols of the Old South and slavery that was catalyzed by the death of George Floyd last year while in police custody in Minneapolis.

More than 160 Confederate symbols were removed from public spaces or renamed last year after the deadly encounter, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has campaigned for those symbols to be abandoned.

“Names do matter,” Jason F. Esteves, Atlanta’s school board chairman, said at Monday’s meeting.

The vote to rename the school in Atlanta came as officials in Jacksonville, Fla., where Aaron played for a season in the minor leagues, were considering incorporating Aaron’s name into a baseball park there.

Aaron made his major league debut with the Milwaukee Braves on April 13, 1954. Early in his career, Black players were barred from hotels where white teammates stayed during spring training in Florida. He pressed management for change, with no immediate success.

Writing in Jackie Robinson’s “Baseball Has Done It,” a collection of first-person accounts from baseball figures telling of their battles against racism, Aaron recalled the intolerance that he had faced.

“I’ve read some newspapermen saying I was just a dumb kid from the South with no education and all I knew was to go out there and hit,” Aaron wrote.

“Baseball has done a lot for me, given me an education in meeting other kinds of people,” he continued. But he added pointedly, “It has taught me that regardless of who you are and how much money you make, you are still a Negro.”

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