Why a Monument To Forrest in Memphis in 1905?

Update: I didn’t see this one coming, but it is nice to see the SCV and NAACP working together in opposition to the Klan’s planned rally in Memphis next month.  Millar shows that he should have been included in the city’s panel to re-name Forrest Park.  Pastor Norman is quite impressive in his own right.  Last week Millar described Forrest as a “benevolent slave trader” and in his interview suggests that Forrest disbanded the Klan, which really didn’t have much to do with white supremacy to begin with.  It’s a tough sell and ultimately a losing proposition.  Regardless of how you interpret Forrest’s personal history the excerpt below clearly shows that the dedication of the monument had everything to do with Memphis’s racial climate in 1905.

A number of you have emailed me requesting additional information on the historical context of the unveiling of the Nathan Bedford Forrest memorial in Memphis in 1905.  I mentioned the other day that the best source I’ve found is Court Carney’s Journal of Southern History essay, “The Contested Image of Nathan Bedford Forrest” (August 2001).

According to Carney the Forrest memorial in Memphis can be traced to a number of factors, most importantly, the economic downturn that the city faced in the period immediately following the war and especially the yellow fever epidemic of 1878.  The epidemic hit the white community especially hard and by the end of the century African Americans had risen to constitute half of the city’s population.  The elite white population that was lost during the epidemic was replaced, according to Carney, by an influx of rural whites, who were much “less racially tolerant than their urban contemporaries.”

Racial antagonism continued to increase in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The Memphis Commercial Appeal published a daily cartoon entitled “Hambone’s Meditations” that featured a crude caricature of an African American who spoke in coarse dialect.  Created to entertain white Memphians with the “foibles” of black people, the cartoon reflected the everyday racial slurs that African Americans experienced.  Racism was rampant in the nation in general, and in 1905 Thomas Dixon published his bestselling paean to the Ku Klux Klan, The Clansmen.  During a period that featured  some of the worst racial atrocities in American history, the Klan became a potent symbol of white supremacy–and in the midst of this resurgence of racism, Memphis chose to unveil its bronze equestrian memorial to Forrest.  Had Memphis constructed such a memorial in the 1880s, it likely would have reflected the postwar themes in evidence at his funeral–a naturally gifted general of strong religious faith who had overcome childhood poverty to become a wealthy businessman–although the divided attitudes of white Memphians at the time might have tempered the tenor of tributes to the general’s memory.  Instead, by 1905, the year of the Forrest statue’s dedication, increasing racial brutality–as well as the new racial and class composition of the city–had helped to unite white Memphians and in turn transform the city’s image of Forrest.

As race relations worsened in Memphis, Forrest’s name became increasingly connected with the Ku Klux Klan for the first time since the early 1870s.  Some of the earliest public references to Forrest’s role as Grand Wizard occurred in 1901, when Memphis hosted the annual United Confederate Veterans Reunion.  The Memphis Commercial Appeal, for example, mentioned his role as “Grand Cyclops” of the Klan, a connection not alluded to in the public remembrances of the 1870s.  Forrest’s image as leader of the Ku Klux Klan became more explicit in the weeks before the 1905 unveiling.  An editorial in the Memphis News-Scimitar was accompanied by a cartoon entitled “Forrest Again in the White Shroud,” which portrayed the Forrest statue still under the protective cloth that draped the monument.  The cartoonist saw in the shrouded statue the glorious memories of the Klan, and behind Forrest he drew ten ghostly Klansmen raiding the Memphis park.  The accompanying article proclaimed that “Forrest has come to his own again.”  The Klan, the article explained, was organized “for the protection of the honor and independence of Southern social condition.”  “It may be only a mirage of a war-loving brain that people the park again with spectral men in ghostly garb,” the writer admitted, but white Memphians were comforted with the image of Forrest as “that leader whose iron hand held the reins of safety over the South when Northern dominion apotheosized the negro and set misrule and devastation to humiliate a proud race. (pp. 610-11)

Regardless of where you stand in this debate, one thing that the above passage makes perfectly clear is that the dedication of monuments to historical figures is never simply about the past.  The individuals and organizations involved in these projects, along with the community that supports it, have their own stories to tell.  I am hoping to have my essay ready for the Atlantic by the end of the day on Friday.

10 comments… add one

  • Pat Young Feb 20, 2013

    It is an appalling aspect of historic memory that those who commit crimes against humanity are memorialized while their victims are forgotten. Perhaps the park could contribute to a fuller memory of Forrest by being named after one of his victims, a slave he traded or a USCT killed at Fort Pillow. If he died a “friend of the black man” as some SCV insist, he might look up from his grave and see some reconciling redemption in the new name.

  • Andy Hall Feb 21, 2013

    None of this stuff happened in a cultural vacuum, any more than it does today. Carney notes that Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman (upon which the infamous film Birth of a Nation was based) was published in 1905, the same year as the dedication of the Forrest monument in Memphis. But it was only a few months after that unveiling that Dixon published a fawning article about the Klan in The Metropolitan Magazine that included a detailed description of Forrest’s induction into that organization by John Watson Morton, who later had Dixon write an expanded version to include in his own autobiography.

    White Southerners knew, understood, and actively praised these things a century ago. The inability of some today to come to terms with that past, openly acknowledged and celebrated at the time, is astonishing.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2013

      Thanks for the additional information. One of the points that I am making in my Atlantic essay is that this current dispute is as much about the history of the monument as it is about Forrest himself. It’s an important distinction. That monument represents the goals, values, and fears of Memphis’s white power structure in 1905.

      • Don Mar 9, 2013

        I would disagree…

        Memphis had a building boom for parks at the turn of the 20th century. It was an effort to beautify the city, provide areas for urban residents to relax and recreate, and reduce ills like juvenile delinquency. Memphis was in its Progressive era…. Among the parks added during this time were Riverside, Overton, DeSoto, and Douglass and many smaller parks. As you see there was not a connection to the lost cause for these efforts… (Douglass Park was named for Frederick Douglass)

        The park commission agreed to convert the grounds of the recently closed City Hospital to a park in honor of Forrest in return for the erection of an equestrian monument at its centerpiece. This was in 1898. The statue was to be erected by the Forrest Monument Association…. It had been formed in 1887 on the tenth anniversary of his death. It raised money through subscription over the next several years. It raised a little over $30,000 from about 6,000 individuals ( almost all in the Mid South) during a fifteen year effort and eventually commissioned a bronze work from a Mr. Niehaus of NY…. The Park commission declined to add $15,000 to this fund in order to make the size of the statue “colossal” as opposed to “heroic”

        Putting up large monuments was the rage at the time but rarer in the South because of the costs. Many of the monuments erected at the turn of the twentieth century had civil war themes. There was a great nostalgia for the war and respect for the disappearing veterans. Veteran reunions and dedications invited speakers from both sides of the conflict and invariably were used to emphasize healing and brotherhood between North and South since the war. Generally African Americans were not acknowledged at these celebrations…especially in the South.

        The actual plan for the park was executed by George Kessler who had also designed the larger parks and the parkways in Memphis at that time. (Think Olmsted only better)

        The statue was dedicated in 1905 in a huge civic affair attended by 30,000 citizens with dry speeches from politicians and soldiers (North and South).

        The statue was warmly received by the City and became a landmark. Forrest was beloved and considered a hero in Memphis at the time of his death. I don’t think he was hated by African Americans in the city at the time but that is an opinion. In the dedications and fund raising for the monument his role with the Klan was not acknowledged nor leveraged. It is true that through the Clansman and pulp fiction that Forrest gained Klan infamy at this time. I am not certain of his role and would not deny his involvement but history can be quite complex and nuanced.

        In any case the original purpose of the park or statue was not to promote the Klan or race baiting or white supremacy. The second coming of the Klan which commenced at this time was quite political and openly endorsed candidates and platforms. It did not get much traction in Memphis. That does not mean that racism and segregation did not reign here.

        By the way, the statue was cast in France but visited Boston on a long and circuitous journey to Memphis. Niehaus did a splendid job and the statue in rated highly by experts for its artistic merit.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2013

          The statue was warmly received by the City and became a landmark.

          No disagreement there, but perhaps should be qualified along racial lines.

          In any case the original purpose of the park or statue was not to promote the Klan or race baiting or white supremacy.

          I am not sure what you mean by “promote the Klan.” That is not what I say in my editorial nor does Carney use those words. The crucial point here is that the Forrest monument was connected by the residents of Memphis to their ongoing concerns about race in the city.

          • Don Mar 10, 2013

            I guess we will disagree.

            I checked the the multiple years worth of minutes for the Monument Committee, the list of donors, the ads seeking donations, the dedication speeches, etc. and find no evidence to the motives that you ascribe for the construction of the park and statue.

            I do find that it was part of an overall park movement in Memphis at the time. I find that the committee was composed mainly of men who were too young to have been in the clan or war and were considered progressive. The stated reasons for constructing the monument were to honor Forrest for his military career and contributions to Memphis and promoted reunion and patriotism. It occurred during a national movement to erect monuments to the war that generally promoted healing between the sections and reconciliation between the North and South. This national movement toward romanticizing the war and the Lost Cause did not usually involve African Americans and has been criticized for changing the focus from the Radical viewpoint of the war.

            I think that some people see the only reason to lionize Forrest was for his “dark side” and therefore paint with a very broad brush. They find guilt through association and fail to see the Forrest for the trees. There were many people in 1905 that had known Forrest personally and admired and loved him. They did not erect a statue for him because of “their ongoing concerns about race.”

            Memphis in 1905 was entering a long period of relative racial quiet. The 1880′s and 1890′s had been turbulent as segregation was invoked and violence occurred. Certainly black people were not happy with these changes but they had been accomplished before 1905. There was accommodation and cooperation between the races at this time. It began to unravel about 1940. I am not saying that the norms in Memphis were right but they were what they were and most people here lived with them…

            Over the life of the city the racial composition of the city has veered up and down for various reasons with periods of unrest and change. It became majority black after the Civil War and then again after the yellow fever epidemics. It began to shift back to majority white in the 1890′s. It lost much of its ethnic population (Irish, Germans, Italians, etc) and during the early part of the century many rural whites did move to Memphis. Naturally they brought their social attitudes and prejudices with them. However, the city was orderly and generally crimes against blacks were prosecuted. This was not true of the surrounding county and country side.

            • Don Mar 10, 2013

              I want to correct one assertion… The majority of the committee that raised money for the monument were not young men in 1905 and many had served with Forrest. However, the establishment of this park was an achievement for the reform groups that became active in Memphis affairs at this time and were decision makers on the park commission, city commission and mayor. These were the young turks that post dated the war and reconstruction.

            • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2013

              Thanks for the follow up. It’s difficult to respond given that you do not cite any specific primary and/or secondary sources. I relied heavily on Court Carney’s Journal of Southern History. He doesn’t ignore the themes of reconciliation, a desire to honor Forrest’s military career etc. He also suggests that these themes overlapped one another at various times. That said, Carney found a great deal of evidence that in 1905 and 1958 the white residents of Memphis explicitly connected Forrest with concerns about race.

              • Don Mar 11, 2013

                I did not intend my remarks as a historical essay but more as opinions formed over non scholarly research. I read a bit and have always been interested in history and especially the history of Memphis.

                As you know, this Forrest thing constantly rebounds into the public mind and at different times I have sought answers to specific questions posed by various sides of the debate. I tend to try and seek out primary sources whenever possible. I have found that both sides miss key elements of the opposing argument and both have arguments based upon questionable sources.

                By the way I agree that on the face the assertion that Forrest was a “kind and sympathetic” slave trader is laughable. But I believe that it came from an article in the Cincinnati Gazette at the time of Forrest death. The reporter sought to explain why blacks in Memphis turned out in large numbers for the funeral and why many were grief stricken. The former slaves that he interviewed started the meme that Forrest was a kindly slave trader. They stated that he kept families together, sent slaves out into Memphis to find their new master, refused to sell to certain men, etc….. There were also a number that had been formerly owned by him who considered him family. This in no way excuses Forrest for being a slave trader or a slave owner but it shows how important POV is when personal experience weighs in.

                I do believe that Forrest was well liked by black people in Memphis during his life. The funeral is not the only evidence of that and it must be admitted that the bar for a white man to be liked by blacks in the 19th century South was pretty damn low. There was much abuse and even a little kindness and consideration went a long way. You would think that Fort Pillow and the Klan would have precluded any way for Forrest to have successfully bridged the gap with the black community but there is evidence that he did… I do not believe that this feeling was widespread among blacks elsewhere in the South.

                Maybe I’ll try my hand at a book someday…there is certainly a shortage of Forrest works ;-)

                I saw your Atlantic article…congrats

                • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2013

                  “The former slaves that he interviewed started the meme that Forrest was a kindly slave trader. They stated that he kept families together, sent slaves out into Memphis to find their new master, refused to sell to certain men, etc….. There were also a number that had been formerly owned by him who considered him family.”

                  Fascinating. If you ever come across a reference for this I would love to see it. Thanks.

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