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Update on Nathan Bedford Forrest Park Controversy

344px-Forrest_&_Maples_listingThis story just keeps getting more bizarre by the hour.  Earlier today it looked like the Memphis City Council was going to vote to change the name of Forrest Park to Forrest – Wells Park, in honor of Ida B. Wells.  Of course, local heritage organizers decided to shuttle in H.K. Edgerton to speak on behalf of a slave trader and member of the Ku Klux Klan.  A few hour ago it looked like the council was going to rush through a vote to beat the passage of legislation on the state level (PDF) that would make it illegal to change the name of any public space named after a military figure.  The latest news is that a decision was made to temporarily change the names of three city parks:

  • Forrest Park will now be known as Health Sciences Park.
  • Confederate Park is now Memphis Park.
  • Jefferson Davis Park is now Mississippi River Park.

And there you have it.  I assume they will re-visit this issue at a later date.  As always, I am happy with what the local community decides through their local elected officials.

That said, I do hope they decide to amend the name of the park to include Wells rather than discard Forrest entirely.  The dedication of a park after such an individual tells us something important about the history of race and white power in Memphis’s history.  Tearing it down does little more than erase that history from public view.  Adding a monument and/or marker to Ida B. Wells compliments the Forrest monument in any number of ways.  It reflects the voices of a part of the community that was prevented from taking part in the process that led to the original dedication and, more importantly, it reflects a stark change of values.

Think of the interpretive possibilities: a woman who fought for civil rights and worked tirelessly to bring an end to lynchings alongside a slave-trader, Confederate general responsible for one of the largest massacres during the Civil War and member of the KKK.  If Forrest did make an honest overture toward the black community at the very end of his life than it should, in some way, be acknowledged.  Does he deserve to be celebrated for it?  No.

Welcome to Forrest – Wells Park

There are a number of plans on the table that would change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in Memphis, Tennessee.  Any plan that involves removing the Forrest monument would also have to include the removal of his remains which are buried below.  That presents all kinds of challenges.  As I’ve said before, I am not a fan of tearing monuments down, though I do believe there are always exceptions to the rule.  In this case I think a name change is certainly justified, but rather than discard Forrest’s name I would like to see Ida B. Wells’s name added.  Welcome to Forrest – Wells Park.  It has a nice ring to it.  The Memphis City Council meets today to consider a proposal to do just that.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime…

What is it about pastors and Confederate generals, especially someone like Forrest? Of all the historical figures to utilize as representative of living a good life, is Forrest really the best we can do? I certainly know enough to explain this, but I will never understand it.

The View From Virginia in 1861

fort-sumter-fireI am putting the finishing touches on my Crisis at Fort Sumter simulation, which my students will work on throughout this week and present next Tuesday.  Thanks to those of you who offered suggestions on primary and secondary sources.  One of the documents that I am including comes from William Freehling and Craig Simpson’s edited collection of speeches from the Virginia State Convention that met in early 1861 to discuss the secession crisis.  I want my class to reflect on the importance of maintaining Virginia in the Union along with the rest of the Upper South.  On April 4 the Virginia convention voted 88 – 45 to remain in the Union.

Included in their documents is an excerpt from a speech given by Representative Chapman Stuart of  Augusta County Tyler and Doddridge counties on April 5.  What I like about this document is that it first reminds us that slavery was central to the concerns of this group.  Most convention members would certainly have disagreed with folks today who deny the centrality of slavery in the deliberations of Virginians in the wake of Lincoln’s election and inauguration and in contrast with those states that viewed the Republican Party as an immediate threat.  What they miss is the fact that many conditional and unconditional Unionists believed that the institution of slavery was safer in the Union.

Chapman owned no slaves and yet he puts forth a vigorous defense of the institution and a commitment to working with colleagues from the Tidewater who owned the majority of Virginia’s slaves.  I hope my students are able to use this document to reinforce a line of argument that cautions Lincoln not to threaten the loyalty of those who up to this point have prevented Virginia from seceding.  Stuart references the strong desire of his constituents, who hope to maintain ties with the North.  Of course, that could easily be challenged depending on how the situation develops in Charleston and the types of choices white Southerners are forced to confront as a result.

A Glimpse Into Camp Life

This morning I noticed the following photograph in my Facebook feed.  It’s an incredible image of Union soldiers parading through their camp.  The photograph and some cropped close-up shots can be found here, but the original is located on the Library of Congress’s website.  It reveals quite a bit of detail about the layout of the camp itself.

parade-through-camp-1863

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wide view of a Civil War camp, but it does conform pretty well to army regulations.  Below is a diagram of a camp that was done by a historian friend of mine after a few drinks this past summer at the Civil War Institute.  Yes, now you know what Civil War historians do after throwing back a few. :-)

Parade Through Camp

Benefits of Southern Slavery

David Barton and Glenn may be able to continue broadcasting their silly and misinformed shows about American history, but at least we can be guaranteed of a certain number of critical reviews that expose their shortcomings.  Barton’s most recent book about Thomas Jefferson was pulled from store shelves after serious problems with his research methods were revealed.  Hopefully, the weight of commentary has helped to steer a few people away from purchasing their products or thinking of them in any way as educators.

As an educator, however, I worry much more about people like Dan Horn and his new series of videos, titled “Causes of the Civil War” which he sells through a website called Discerning History.  Horn is “is a writer, tour guide, computer programer and pastor based in North Carolina. He is an elder at Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and has written several books on theology.”  He has no credentials in the field of history or history education.  Here is what that gets you.

Like many of you who are in the classroom I spend a good deal of time trying to find ways to impart the complexity of slavery and the master-slave relationship to my high school students.  Mr. Horn’s understanding of the subject is not only seriously flawed, it’s dangerous.  From what I can tell his understanding of the history of slavery is based on books written entirely before 1940.  His website looks somewhat professional and the videos themselves will easily seduce those who do not know any better.  This is just another reason why the Internet can be both a blessing and a curse.

It should go without saying that a site such as this without any institutional affiliation and hosted by an individual with no formal training in the field should not be utilized as an educational resource.