A proposal to change the spelling of Sandy Springs’ Lake Forrest Drive due to possible Confederate and Ku Klux Klan inspirations is winning many fans. But on neighborhood social media, it’s also drawn criticism from residents calling it political correctness or tokenism.

Running more than 4 miles between Mount Vernon Highway in Sandy Springs and Powers Ferry Road in Buckhead, the street is the subject of longstanding but unconfirmed rumor that it was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the KKK’s first Grand Wizard. Rumor also has it that the nearby Lake Forest Elementary School’s name was spelled with the single “R” to avoid the Confederate/KKK connection.

A Lake Forrest Drive street sign at the intersection with Northwood Drive in Sandy Springs. (Google Maps)

Mayor Rusty Paul on June 2 announced a surprise proposal to respell the street as “Lake Forest” — with one “R” — at the same time he called for a citywide dialogue on racism. The move followed nationwide and local protests about racism and police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last month.

One practical question is whether the city of Atlanta would follow suit with its piece of the street. The Mayor’s Office and City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents that part of Buckhead, did not respond to comment requests. But the idea has the support of one influential Buckhead community leader, Brink Dickerson, who chairs Neighborhood Planning Unit A, a city advisory group.

Dickerson said he does not recall any prior renaming efforts for Lake Forrest, “but in recent years I certainly have wondered who it was named after and thought that if, by chance, it was named after Bedford Forrest, it should be renamed.”

“As a moral and civic matter, street and park names, like flags, should be unifying and not divisive,” Dickerson continued. “Where there is credible evidence that something has been named after someone with an unsavory past, then it should be renamed. Promptly.”

Public reaction

Sandy Springs City Councilmember Andy Bauman, who represents much of the community around Lake Forrest, said in an email that he will vote in favor of the name change when it comes before the council, likely on June 16. He noted that would kick off a public input process.

Sandy Springs City Councilmember Andy Bauman. (Special)

“Lastly, I’d ask the following questions: If in fact the road was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, as many have suspected for years, why shouldn’t we make the simple change?” asked Bauman. “Absent some other evidence of the history of the road’s name, why still object? [It is] still Lake Forest Drive, albeit with one less ‘R.’”

Shortly after Paul’s announcement, Bauman went on the Nextdoor site for his neighborhood to promote and praise the idea. He said the renaming “sends a message that our city rejects racism and hatred in all its forms.” He said he is proud of the city, its police department and recently passed hate-crimes ordinance.

“And yet…we are aware of the systemic racism and other forms of hatred that lie underneath and at times rear their ugly head,” he wrote. “It is far easier to change policy than to change attitudes. But try we must.”

Many residents of the southern Sandy Springs and Chastain Park areas praised the move.

“Go Rusty!!! Love when [people] in leadership do the right thing! Wish our leadership in Washington would do the same,” wrote one resident.

“Wow, I never expected this. Very proud of him!! Great message to the community,” wrote another.

But there were objections and sometimes heated arguments as well. One thrust of criticism was the idea that the renaming stirs groundless or unnecessary controversy, and that the city would be on a slippery slope to renaming other streets.

“Total waste of tax money. Who dreams up these ‘problems’ with no factual basis behind it and throws it out there to cause more arguments?” wrote one critic.

“This is only an issue if it is made into an issue,” said another.

Some residents joked about the racism concerns behind the renaming proposal.

“I’m just worried that all the discarded Rs could be used to spell racism,” joked one resident.

“That’s the last time I use that racist road, from now on it’s Long Island Drive for me,” said another.

Another theme of criticism was that the renaming is a superficial gesture by a white mayor and City Council.

“I was horrified with the recent racial injustice of George Floyd. Yes…changes must be made,” wrote one resident. But, the resident continued, a street renaming “doesn’t come close to true action to address the problem… I beg you to look at true and forceful changes to racial injustice in our community.”

Another resident who said she is of Cherokee ancestry said a truly just renaming would reflect the Native Americans who were forced off local lands by white settlers. But she said she opposed that as well, arguing that removing now-offensive names or monuments gives up a chance to learn from past “mistakes.”

“This discussion is egregious and smacks of white privilege and, frankly, white supremacy,” the resident wrote. “You are not trying to do the right thing; you are pandering to a small segment of the population in an effort to prove you are so ‘woke’ or so whatever as a show of trying to make amends, prove you are not offensive and have a talking point at election time to stay in power, feeling self-righteous all the way.”

Murky past

The city of Sandy Springs has been through another controversial street-renaming, when luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz USA in 2017 sought to rebrand Barfield Road outside its new headquarters. The city made a compromise, renaming only part of the street, which is still commonly known as Barfield.

In the case of Lake Forrest, however, nothing is known for sure about the origin of the name. In 2017, following a previous round of Black Lives Matter protests, the city of Atlanta formed an advisory council to propose renaming streets inspired by Confederate figures, as well as addressing monuments to them. The most prominent outcome was the renaming of Confederate Avenue near Grant Park to United Avenue.

The council was co-chaired by the heads of Buckhead’s Atlanta History Center and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. According to Atlanta History Center spokesperson Howard Pousner, City Hall staff members researched city street names for ties to Confederate figures. “Lake Forrest Drive was one that was not clear,” he said.

However, according to the advisory council’s report, at least three other Atlanta streets with “Forrest” in the name were in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Two of them, both called Forrest Avenue and both in the Old Fourth Ward, already were renamed; one is now Ralph McGill Boulevard and the other is Central Park Place. The existing Forrest Street in northwest Atlanta near the Hemphill Water Treatment Plant is also named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, according to the report.

In the case of Lake Forrest Drive, it is not even clear what the lake is. The most notable body of water along the road today is one of three ponds created by a dam that runs directly beneath the road on the Atlanta-Sandy Springs border. They seem to be generally nameless and the homeowners association that partly owns them is simply called the Three Lakes Corporation. The dam, likely dating to the 1940s, has become a major headache for both cities, as it requires state-order reconstruction which in turn has triggered homeowner lawsuits.

Practical effects

Aside from the controversy about the substance of the name, some practical outcomes of a renaming have been floated. Two intersecting streets have their own “Forrest” names, apparently in tribute to “Lake Forrest”: Forrest Lake Drive in Sandy Springs and Lake Forrest Lane in Buckhead. Bauman said his city likely would not worry about such side effects at this point.

A common question from residents on Nextdoor was whether a respelling of “Lake Forrest” would affect their mail delivery or cost them money on new business cards. Dickerson, the NPU A chair, said residents have nothing to worry about, citing the renaming of his own Buckhead street five years ago.

Brink Dickerson, chair of Buckhead’s Neighborhood Planning Unit A. (Special)

Back then, it was called Dykes Drive, and residents grew frustrated with constant thefts of its street signs. Apparently, thieves found the name humorous as an insulting term for lesbians that has been reappropriated by some as a term of pride. Residents chose Tuxedo Forest Drive as the new name. Many mapping services, including Google, have not updated it, but Dickerson said there are no serious mail delivery or wayfinding issues despite the name being completely different rather than slightly re-spelled.

Dickerson added that in neighborhood discussions about the new name, there was brief talk about spelling it “Tuxedo Forrest” due to the influence of the nearby Lake Forrest Drive. The discussion did not mention Nathan Bedford Forrest, said Dickerson, though the Confederate connection crossed his mind.

“I certainly knew who he was, but do not know what the others knew,” said Dickerson. “But I made up my mind just on the simplicity and the fact that one ‘R’ is more common, despite the best efforts of Forrest Gump.”

Forrest Gump was the title character of the Oscar-winning 1994 Tom Hanks movie about a history-making savant. In the film, Gump says that he was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, in a scene that makes light of his misunderstanding of the KKK’s terrorist purpose and inserts him into a scene in the infamously racist KKK-promoting film “The Birth of a Nation.” Explains Gump about his name, “Momma said the ‘Forrest’ part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.