The Forest Avenue Series

 This is the first in a two-part series entitled “The curious history of Forest Avenue”. The series investigates the origin of the road’s name, details the racial climate during the time Forest Avenue was established, and ultimately asks the two fundamental questions: Who or what was this road named after? And what should happen to Forest Avenue going forward? During this series, we will take a trip down Forest Avenue, we will visit a church with an interesting name, we will go back in time to the Civil War, and we will visit Apopka, Circa 1920s. 

Part One: The curious history of Forest Avenue

Happy Birthday, Forest Avenue. 

On this day in 1923, Forest Avenue was officially named. Or at least it’s the first time it shows up on an official map.

Over its 95 years in service to the Apopka community, a lot of familiar organizations, businesses and agencies have found a home on or nearby this storied road.

Forest Avenue begins humbly at East Eighth Street in South Apopka where the railroad tracks cross. Loaves and Fishes, an organization that provides food to the homeless and families in need, is only a few yards away from the intersection. Heading north, you pass the Community Health Center, which provides quality and compassionate primary healthcare services to Central Florida’s diverse communities and has been in Apopka since 1972. On the east side and almost at its entire length is the West Orange Trail. The Forrest Avenue Baptist Church is also on Forest Avenue, although it has a slightly different spelling.

More on that later.

The Apopka Police Department is visible to the west. So is the Apopka City Hall, the Museum of the Apopkans, the Apopka Fire Department, the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce and Dunkin Donuts (to the east) just before Forest Avenue intersects with US Highway 441.

On the other side of 441, the north side of Apopka, the historic sites continue.

The Catfish Place, which opened 35 years ago and is one of the most established restaurants in Apopka, shows up first. A little further north you pass the West Orange Trail Station. Continue on and Forest Avenue pauses where Kit Land Nelson Park begins. Just to the east is where the old Edwards Field was located. On the other side of the park, Forest Avenue returns, passing by the Fran Carlton Center before ending at Oak Street, where the old Florida Hospital property begins.

For a road that is less than one mile in length, that is a lot of Apopka history. But how did Forest Street get its name? What forest is it named after? Or was it named after a person?

The contradictory name of Forrest Avenue Baptist Church

Scott Barker has been the pastor at Forrest Avenue Baptist Church in Apopka on Forest Avenue since 2008. Before that, his father Ted led the church beginning in 1971 when the Barker family moved to Apopka. Although he was only eight-years-old, Barker recalls when the street was named Forrest Avenue, matching the name of the church. That, he says, is why his church has the name Forrest.

“In my childhood, I remember when it was Forrest,” he says. “I’ve researched it myself and I can’t find any proof, but I remember it having two R’s.”

Forrest Avenue Baptist Church began in 1958, which is approximately 35 years after Forest Avenue was named.

“I thought our church named it after General Forrest, but all of the earliest members said they named it after the street,” said Barker. “We talked about changing the name, but it’s just one of those things. The church name has always been spelled that way as far as I know.”

It’s surprising that a church would let such an obvious typo stand for almost 60 years if, in fact, the name of the street was Forest Avenue. Was it a typo? Or was Barker’s childhood recollection accurate and the street name was Forrest Avenue? And who was this General Forrest that Pastor Barker referenced?

The legacy of General Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821 – October 29, 1877), called Bedford Forrest in his lifetime, was a Confederate Army general during the American Civil War and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest

Before the war, Forrest amassed a fortune as a planter, real estate investor, and slave trader. He was one of the few officers on either side to enlist as a private and be promoted to general officer and corps commander during the war. An expert cavalry leader, Forrest was given command of his own unit and established new doctrines for mobile forces, earning the nickname “The Wizard of the Saddle”.

He played pivotal roles at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, the capture of Murfreesboro, the Franklin-Nashville campaign, Brice’s Crossroads, and in the pursuit and capture of Colonel Abel Streight‘s Raiders. His methods subsequently influenced many future generations of military strategists.

Forrest was accused of war crimes at the Battle of Fort Pillow in 1864 for allegedly allowing forces under his command to massacre hundreds of black Union Army and white Southern Unionist prisoners.

In 1877, The New York Times wrote:

“During the Civil War, Forrest presided over the slaughter of surrendering Union troops — many of them black — at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. He later served as the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, consolidating a ragtag collection of secret societies into a group that became a factor in national civic life.”

However, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman investigated the allegations and did not charge Forrest with any improprieties.

Following the war, Forrest pursued new business ventures but met with less success. He was sworn in as one of the earliest members of the Ku Klux Klan. He became disillusioned, after a year or so, by the more radical ambitions and ungovernable membership of the rest of the Klan. In January 1869, Forrest issued General Order Number One, which decreed that “the masks and costumes of this Order be forever destroyed”. In the last years of his life, he publicly denounced the violence and racism practiced by the Klan.

To later generations, Forrest became a symbol of Confederate pride. Monuments and statues were erected in his honor and schools and roads were named after him.

Statues, streets, schools, cities, counties and even military bases named after Confederates spike at the turn of the century

In an article written by Caroline Klibanoff of medium.com, her research found 1,417 streets named after Confederate leaders, including many that were named after General Nathan Bedford Forrest. 

Southerners began honoring the Confederacy with statues and other symbols almost immediately after the Civil War. The first Confederate Memorial Day, for example, was originated by the wife of a Confederate soldier in 1866. In 1886 Jefferson Davis laid the cornerstone of the Confederate Memorial Monument in a prominent spot on the state Capitol grounds in Montgomery, Alabama. There has been a steady stream of dedications in the 150 years since that time, and street names honoring Confederate icons like General Forrest are not uncommon.

And the vast majority of those streets named were during two major periods in which the dedication of Confederate monuments and other symbols spiked — the first three decades of the 20th century and during the civil rights movement. But two distinct periods saw a significant rise in the dedication of monuments, streets, and other symbols.

The first began around 1900, amid the period in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans and re-segregate society. This spike lasted well into the 1920s, a period that saw a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

What’s in a name? Forest or Forrest?

Not only are there hundreds of streets named Forrest, but there are also examples of streets and schools named Forest that were previously named Forrest, or the original intent was to name it Forrest but used the name or spelling Forest instead.

In Dallas, Forest Lane was once Forrest Lane. The second “r” in the street name was removed in the 1880s, but the intention to honor Forrest remained according to The Dallas Morning News. Numerous trees once lined the street, giving the new name a second meaning.

In Ocala, Mack Dunwoody, the superintendent of schools for Marion County in 1968, told The Ocala Star-Banner that Forest High School in Ocala was originally named after Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In 2008, the Star-Banner wrote:

In early 1968, before Dunwoody was appointed, the School Board created attendance zones, but the federal government objected because the lines divided the community by race. The lines were redrawn so that the black and white neighborhoods were separated equally and forced all high school students to attend Ocala High while a new school was built. Dunwoody decided to change the names of both schools.
“I felt we had to change the names in order to accomplish desegregation,” he said. “I knew the students wanted to keep their names but I felt we had to change them to truly become integrated.”
Dunwoody ended up letting students from each school choose new names. Still insisting they wanted their previous school names, the students came up with Vanguard to replace Howard and Forest to replace Ocala High.

However, the actual name that students chose to replace Ocala High was Forrest High, named for Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who became the leader of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. The name was chosen as a protest.
Dunwoody said at the time he didn’t know that Forrest was connected with the racist group, but he knew he was a Confederate officer and that fact alone meant he could not approve the name.
“But I felt a tribute to the Ocala National Forest was appropriate so I dropped an ‘R’ and decided it would be a good name to honor part of our county’s identity,” he said.

The Klan and racial tensions in Apopka during the 1920s

In his book “History of Apopka and Northwest Orange County, Florida” author Jerrell H. Shofner described an incident in 1920 that illustrates the racial tension in Apopka and Northwest Orange County.

On pages 193 and 194, he writes:

 “At the Ocoee polls on election day (1920), Moses Norman (a black man) was denied the opportunity to vote and a heated verbal exchange ensued. Norman angrily left the polls and three white marshals followed him to July Perry’s home. When they tried to arrest Norman, gunfire was exchanged. A day-long battle followed with American Legion posts from Orlando, Winter Garden, and Apopka sending men to join the Ocoee whites. Nearly the entire Negro section of Ocoee, 25 houses, two churches, and the Lodge – was burned. Two whites died and several were wounded, but since all the surviving blacks fled, it was impossible to determine the number of black casualties. White officials said there were three; the NAACP counted 30. One thing was certain. July Perry was caught by the mob while trying to escape his burning home. Already wounded, he was subjected to horrible tortures by the white men and finally lynched. July Perry was a prosperous black farmer who had lived at Ocoee for more than 30 years, during at least 20 of which had traded extensively at S.W. Eldridge’s Apopka store. Whether he was singled out because he had risen above the allotted place for blacks and become an employer or just happened to get in the way of an enraged mob is not known, but the result was the same for Perry.

Although whites had been the aggressor’s in the affair, Legion volunteers patrolled Ocoee and nearby towns for several days against the possibility of further racial difficulties.”

Shofner also described the popularity and rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Apopka and Northwest Orange County in the 1920’s.

On pages 200 and 201, he writes:

 “The problems which concerned the churches were also the ones which brought about the revived Ku Klux Klan, claiming to be the defender of traditional American values against the industrial cities with their numerous immigrants in foreign ideas, of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism against Catholicism and other “alien” religions, and a rural morality against corruption. Its enormous growth across the nation in the early 1920s was duplicated in northwest Orange County, but its precipitate national decline after 1926 was neither as rapid nor as complete there. Partially because it was a secret order offering mystery and excitement to men who lived otherwise mundane lives and partially a way of defending traditional values, it became an accepted, integral part of Apopka society.

In 1922, 4,000 people attended an Apopka meeting at which 200 Klansmen paraded, the Imperial Wizard of the Atlanta clan spoke on “enforcement of law and preservation of American ideals,” and a barbecue was served.  

In 1925, an Apopka school held a ceremony in which the Wekiwa Klan presented it with a flag and Bible.

The public attended a ceremony at Central Avenue and Fourth Street in 1926 which featured the midnight burning of a fiery cross.

At George McClure’s Methodist funeral in 1924, 12 robed Klansmen marched from the church to the cemetery along with an American Legion contingent, but the first official Klan funeral came in 1925 when Benjamin B. Collier, a Confederate veteran, and member of the original Klan, was buried. Rev. Holmes Logan presided over the service, but the KKK conducted the funeral. Wekiwa Klansmen in white robes carried the American flag and a fiery cross to the gravesite where the ritual… “was short, but made a deep impression.” W.T. Berry’s funeral at the Baptist Church in 1927 had a large representation of both the KKK and the Knights of Pythias. Rev. I.E. Phillips, Grand Dragon of Florida, spoke to Apopka in 1928 on upholding the principles of the order.”

Acceptance of the Klan was based on widespread concern over threats to American institutions. When Charles D. Haynes, a former New York Congressman, spoke at the Townhall in 1922 on “one-hundred-percent Americanism,” he received resounding applause.

Tomorrow: Part Two – What does the City of Apopka and Orange County say? More evidence points to a different meaning than a forest. And what’s the point of this series? The Apopka Voice makes a recommendation about Forest Avenue moving forward.

To read Part Two, go here.

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