Category Archives: Public History

Nathan Bedford Forrest, Race, and Memory in Memphis

Over at the Atlantic I share some thoughts about the recent controversy in Memphis surrounding the renaming of Forrest Park.  I hope the essay at least provides a bit of historical context to this issue.  Once again, thanks to Court Carney for making my job much easier.  Tennessee’s state legislature finally passed a measure making it illegal to remove monuments and/or change the names of public places in honor of military figures.  The legislation is not affect recent changes in Memphis.  Here is a short clip from the debate in Nashville between the sponsor of the bill and Representative G.A. Hardaway of Shelby County/Memphis.

The state of Georgia is now considering similar legislation.  There is something ironic about the passage of legislation by state legislatures to protect monuments to people who supposedly fought for nothing more during the Civil War that the right to make decisions through their local governments without outside interference.

[Click here for all my posts at the Atlantic.]

Interpreting the USCT at Civil War Sites

Looking forward to seeing some of you next month in Gettysburg for the Future of Civil War History conference.  As I’ve mentioned before I am moderating a panel discussion on interpreting United States Colored Troops at Civil War sites.  We’ve got a nice selection of panelists who can address different aspects of the challenge of engaging the general public about race and the history of USCT through the National Park Service, museums, and the classroom.  Pre-conference discussions are already taking place so that we can take full advantage of our time together in Gettysburg.

Here are the questions we are thinking about.

  • What is gained and lost in trying to understand the USCT experience through the theme of “new birth of freedom”?  How does recent scholarship on the USCT experience grapple with this theme?  In restoring agency to the USCT at historic sites, have we inadvertently made the message visitors receive too celebratory?
  • How does the movie Glory continue to shape popular understanding of the USCT?
  • How can we effectively convey the diverse experiences of USCT soldiers at Civil War sites, and help visitors to understand what changed – and what did not change – between 1863 and 1865?
  • How can Civil War sites use the USCT to move beyond the battlefield discussion of Reconstruction, citizenship, and westward expansion?

For a number of reasons I am very interested in the first question.  I know a few of you out there are planning to attend the conference so having these questions should give you a sense of the scope of the panel.  Even if you are unable to attend feel free to share your thoughts about any of the questions or anything else related to this topic that you think the panel should consider.  C-SPAN is slated to record this panel so it should be available for viewing at a later date.

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.”

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Sons of Confederate Veterans Snubbed in Memphis

ForrestToday it is being reported that a committee has been organized to determine the new name of Forrest Park and two other parks named in honor of the Confederacy in Memphis, Tennessee.

Members of the committee include:

  • Council members Bill Boyd and Harold Collins, Co-chairmen
  • Reverend Keith Norman, Sr. Pastor of First Baptist Broad, current president of the NAACP
  • Jimmy Ogle, current president of the Shelby County Historical Commission
  • Larry Smith, Deputy Director of Parks & Neighborhoods for the City of Memphis
  • Michael Robinson, Chairman of African & African American Studies, LeMoyne Owen College [website indicates that he is a professor of social work]
  • Dr. Douglas Cupples, longtime professor, Department of History, University of Memphis

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.

KKK and SCV Fight for Confederate Heritage

kkk-marchjpg-4db46ab8f62a7905

This week I am going to write an essay for my column at the Atlantic on the recent controversy surrounding the renaming of Forrest Park in Memphis, Tennessee.  Court Carney’s 2001 JSH essay on Forrest and historical memory has been incredibly helpful in placing this most recent incident within a much broader context.  I highly recommend it to those of you who are interested in Forrest and his place in our collective memory.

So, if all goes as planned it looks like the KKK will rally in Memphis on March 30.  This weekend we learned that the Sons of Confederate Veterans has requested that the Klan cancel their plans.  The basis for such a claim rests on dubious grounds.  Consider Lee Millar, who is a spokesman for the SCV:

We just want everyone to know that we are here to protect and preserve our history and do it in a gentlemanly fashion. [emphasis added]

You may remember that a few weeks ago Millar referred to Forrest as a “humane slave trader.”  What I find interesting is Millar’s and the SCV’s appropriation of Forrest’s history as their own.  The problem is that no one individual or organization can claim sole ownership of Forrest’s legacy and in this case it seems to me that the KKK has a legitimate claim to honoring the man.  They will likely want to single out Forrest’s growth during the antebellum years into one of Tennessee’s wealthiest slaveholders as well as his presence at Fort Pillow and early leadership of the Klan itself.  That seems to me to be as legitimate a claim as one will find among the major stakeholders who admire Forrest.

As I pointed out before, this places the SCV in a very difficult position.  Nothing that Millar or anyone else in the SCV has said challenges the Klan’s embrace of Forrest.  This could prove to be a very messy and uncomfortable event for the SCV given that they agree with the Klan’s position that the park should not have been renamed.

Klan members are likely to parade in Memphis with the Confederate flag on March 30.  The SCV can bring their own flags as well, but they run the risk of being identified with the Klan.  If they decide to stand up against the Klan in a show of solidarity with the general public they not only will be aligned with those who believe the park should be renamed, but they also will have acknowledged the very facts about Forrest that they have spent so much time either minimizing or denying.

This is too good to be true.