A direct descendant of French explorer Jean Ribault says it would be a mistake to rename two Duval County Public Schools bearing the Ribault moniker.
The names of nine Duval County Public Schools campuses are poised to undergo name reviews starting next month.
Six of the schools under consideration for renaming honor Confederate Civil War leaders, while the other three schools are named after leaders who some historians say perpetrated violence against Native Americans. Both Jean Ribault Middle and High schools could be renamed in this process.
"We were quite shocked to hear that our ancestor is being dragged into the mud," said Yves de Montcheuil, a resident of Lyon, France, who claims to be a direct descendant of Ribault on his mother's side.
Montcheuil joined with four other French descendants of Ribault in penning a recent column for WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union. They are asking the Duval County School Board to review the historical record when they consider a name change for the Ribault schools.
In a Wednesday appearance on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross, Montcheuil said that records show his ancestor never mistreated native populations here in North Florida, and thinks the school board should leave the Ribault names in place.
"We want to make it clear that Jean Ribault was not a slave owner or a slave trader. He did not persecute Native Americans when he came to Florida, and actually he contributed - probably greatly - to the friendship between our nations," he said.
"He came to Florida to find a place as a refuge for the French Huguenots, where they were persecuted because of their religion. And then he went back to Europe."
Historians say Ribault, a French naval officer, navigator, and early colonizer of the Southeast, took over the French colony of Fort Caroline in 1564, in what is now Jacksonville. He and many of his followers were massacred by Spanish soldiers in St. Augustine the following year.
It's believed he spent little time in the region, and intially established good relationships with the Timucuan indigenous people here.
Last summer, school board member Ashley Smith-Juarez introduced a bill to consider renaming Andrew Jackson High School, Jean Ribault High School and Jean Ribault Middle School.
"We began with six schools named for Confederate officers. We should continue with schools that are named for people responsible for systematically marginalizing and killing Indigenous people," Smith-Juarez said. "It is the place and time in the history of our city and our school district that we are engaging in the process of enacting the renaming policy for alignment to the mission, vision and core values of Duval County Public Schools."
The move to rename local schools comes as school districts and cities around the country work to remove monuments and place names honoring historical figures tied to the Old Confederacy, along with those associated with the mistreatment of Native Americans.
However, de Montcheuil is pushing back against the suggestion that Ribault exploited the Timucaun population, and hopes board members reconsider.
"He sought asylum for his co-religionists, and can't be equated with slavers or people responsible for marginalizing or killing indigenous people."
There is a nine-step process to rename a school. According to the district, community stakeholders for each school will have meetings this month where they will examine the current name of the school and recommend up to five possible new names.
The full interview with Montcheuil can be heard on Wednesday's First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross.
Melissa Ross can be reached at email@example.com, 904-358-6382 or on Twitter at @MelissainJax.
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