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.”
As the report indicates, notably absent is any representation from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This is a huge mistake. Yes, spokesmen such as Lee Millar have made some absurd claims about Forrest, but the SCV is an important stakeholder in this discussion and their perspective deserves to be heard. The Memphis City Council should embrace every opportunity to openly discuss the relevant historical, social, and racial issues surrounding these public parks and their continued maintenance. Keeping the SCV out of these discussions will only fuel suspicion and outrage among a certain demographic. I for one would love to see the SCV make the case for their preferred position to the entire city of Memphis.
With this latest news it looks like the city council has taken a giant leap backward.
I recently accompanied a group of students to Washington, D.C. to take part in a mock Congress. With a few hours to kill I decided to take a stroll through the National Gallery of Art. Included in the collection is a reproduction of the Shaw Memorial, which is located on Beacon Street here in Boston. I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of students sitting with a museum teacher, who did a wonderful job of interpreting the monument and engaging the group. The kids talked about the history of Shaw and the 54th as well as the rich symbolism contained in Saint-Gaudens’s relief. At one point she asked the kids to share sounds that might be heard in such a scene. It made my day.
Those of you living in the Richmond area will find this documentary to be particularly interesting. In 1993 the city organized Healing the Heart of America, which among other things included a walk through Richmond in an attempt to address lingering tensions over slavery, race, and history. Some of the interviews are quite interesting. You can see the legacy of this walk in such programs as The Future of Richmond’s Past as well as the incredible work of Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission. It is interesting to see the changes to the city’s commemorative landscape in the last twenty years.