Why Does Hollywood's Forrest Street Still Bear the Name of a Racist Murderer?

Library of Congress
Looking back, Carmella Gardner says one of the most frightening moments of her life occurred when she was a child. In the late 1970s, she attended a strange march: Dozens of men donned white robes as they promenaded across Davie Road. While Gardner sat safely on the sidewalk, she watched her parents protest a Ku Klux Klan rally — and witnessed members of the Klan verbally assault them.

The yelling became louder, and the air grew heavy with threats. It seemed as though a fight was about to break out in the streets. The young girl looked on, her heart pounding, as masked men shouted slurs, damning her mom and dad's existence.

"I didn't fully understand the history of the Klan, but just being in that atmosphere of hatred, it was fearful," says Gardner, age 46, who today is a grandmother. "I was scared for the safety of everyone. It was an overwhelming experience."

Gardner has lived her whole life within blocks of the KKK rally, in Hollywood, one of the most unassuming cities in glitzy South Florida. The racist parades have ended in Broward, but among the Diamond City's quaint tree-lined streets, many bearing the names of great American heroes, lies one christened after "the Devil" himself.

The signs for Forrest Street, where Gardner lives, look ordinary enough. As a matter of fact, with the exception of its name, the green signs look identical to those honoring the glowing memory of past presidents: Lincoln, Roosevelt, and McKinley are all immortalized here. The history of the man behind the public road where Gardner's home stands, however, is anything but honorable. 

This is the local street named after Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Now, as places such as New Orleans and South Carolina are taking down public Confederate monuments and flags, the question remains: Why does Hollywood allow one of its streets to bear the name of an infamous, violent racist?
Nathan Bedford Forrest, the namesake of Forrest Street in Hollywood, Florida.
The extremity of Forrest's racist views and actions is shocking. During the Civil War, his soldiers reportedly wrote to their families back home, expressing how haunted they were by the atrocities Forrest had ordered them to carry out. In rural fields by Fort Pillow, his troops lynched, drowned, burned, and crucified hundreds of black Union soldiers, even after they had surrendered — clear war crimes.

Because of his unscrupulous reputation, especially in being the ringleader in this "orgy of death," Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant nicknamed Forrest "the Devil." 

After the war, Forrest went on to become the first grand wizard of the KKK, a group that terrorized minorities. Though Forrest allegedly left the organization before this death — apparently members wouldn't listen to his orders once masked, a cardinal sin in the eyes of a former general — the racist hurricane he helped conjure wreaked havoc across the South.

According to Hollywood's leading historian, Joan Mickelson, it is unknown exactly when Forrest Street was named or even who designated it. Nevertheless, the signs for the street stand — and have stood for decades — as a taxpayer-funded memorial to a man who fought for the enslavement of minorities and whose actions reveal his blatant disregard for their humanity.

To add insult to injury, Forrest Street cuts through Hollywood’s historic black neighborhood, Liberia. Gardner has said that living underneath the Devil's shadow has had profound consequences, effects that have diminished the dignity of the community in which she grew up and that she loves.

“A lot of things are lost. These symbols have a psychological effect upon people," Gardner says. "There’s a battle in the mind when you see these signs as to who and what you are. These signs [say], ‘You’re nothing.’”

You don't have to be old enough to remember KKK rallies to feel the effects, Gardner says. Liberia's younger generation is irreparably hurt.

“We lose our children. We lose our families," Gardner says. "We can lose touch with the community we live in because of the negativity caused by those symbols. We lose a child to prison because of the anger caused by this psychological effect. We lose a child to insanity, depression, or other mental-health issues. Psychologically, our kids, they sink into a hole. We lose a lot. It's a grand loss."

For decades, the signs for Forrest Street have taunted and haunted local racial minorities. The question of why the street still bears Forrest's name is perhaps an even greater mystery than how the street became named after a murderer in the first place.

For years, city commissioners have been dawdling in renaming the street despite the fact that the road is routinely protested by Hollywood residents at commission meetings. For nearly a year, locals have told New Times that city leaders' apparent lack of urgency in addressing the issue head-on has made them — many of whom are minorities themselves — feel small and insignificant.

"This idea of pushing aside, and not giving equality to — I’m not only speaking of blacks, I’m speaking of every people who have been oppressed by the majority — I see as disrespectful and ignorant," Gardner says. She says inaction on the part of city leaders upholds a racist culture: "A fire doesn’t grow unless it has fuel, and their behavior is doing just that: feeding a fire."

In March, commissioners passed an amendment intended to make it easier for residents to change the street's name. But the recent amendment still requires thousands of dollars to be paid out of pocket by locals and for the proposed new name to be reviewed by a committee and then voted upon by the commission.

According to city policies, commissioners can choose to waive the criteria, including the fees, but they have not done so, despite Forrest Street being protested for months. Last July, the Hollywood African American Advisory Council urged city leaders to waive the fees.

Commissioners also require more than 50 percent of residents of Forrest Street to agree to a name change. The problem with this, however, is that because Forrest cuts through Hollywood, there is the risk the majority of white residents will not be sympathetic to a renaming. For example, some locals have suggested that the street signs represent American history and that Forrest might not have been as evil as his reputation suggests, especially because many details of his life remain unknown.

But that argument isn't good enough. Every person is a mixture of good and bad, but would we require the local Cuban community to live with a Fidel Castro Avenue? Or, if we do allow for renamings, could we expect the local Jewish community to dish out the Benjamins to have an Adolf Hitler Street rechristened? Could we expect locals to pay to have Osama bin Laden Boulevard changed?

The names of these oppressive figures are symbolic of hateful systems that have collectively harmed the lives of millions. There are no roads named for them because road signs aren't history textbooks; they're a sign of respect. Roads are named after notable figures because we hope for others to go down similar paths. Is Forrest's way — his renowned unscrupulous narrative — one commissioners wants locals to emulate?

While city leaders continue to mull over this issue, Gardner says she doesn't understand why locals might be expected to pay a small fortune, more than $6,000, to have the street's name changed when last year Forrest Street was changed to the less controversial "Forest Street" in an affluent part of Hollywood without anyone being charged a dime.

According to the city spokesperson, the change was a mistake on the part of the Florida Department of Transportation. But it's one that still hasn't been corrected.

“It wasn’t an accident," Gardner says. "They want to be clean, when they are quite dirty. Absolutely disgusting."

New Times reached out to all Hollywood commissioners and Mayor Josh Levy for comment. Only Commissioner Richard Blattner responded. He says he is "ready to face this issue and support" a renaming, citing his readings of Devil in the Grove, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that chronicles racial injustices in Florida. Perhaps Hollywood will take New Orleans' lead after all.

UPDATE Monday, May 22 2:35 p.m.: A previous version of this story did not specify that the Hollywood spokesperson attributed the mistake in changing Forrest Street to Forest Street in one part of the city to the Florida Department of Transportation.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan Kendall is a former editor at Big Think. He studied journalism at Harvard and is a contributing writer for Miami New Times as well as for Vogue, Cultured, Los Angeles Review of Books, Smithsonian, and Atlas Obscura.
Contact: Jonathan Kendall