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.

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11 comments… add one
  • Jaye Curtis Jan 18, 2014 @ 8:10

    This clearly shows the ignorance of the author. Ft. Pillow was not a “massacre” by any means. I suggest you read the Congressional record on that event. Why don’t you just cut right to the chase here? The facts are this: The majority population of Memphis would be composed of African-Americans, and extreme left wing revisionist groups like the NAACP, want to keep their constituents happy by waving the “bloody shirt” or in this case, Confederate Heritage, and destroying any vestige of honoring Confederate Heritage. There is room to honor both African American culture and history, and Confederate Heritage both!

    • Andy Hall Jan 18, 2014 @ 11:09

      Forrest said the defenders of Fort Pillow had been “slaughtered” in his own report. AOR 57, 610.

      • Jaye K. Curtis Jan 18, 2014 @ 15:01

        Slaughtered, not massacred. And the only reason for that is because they were given a chance to surrender, and were told that no quarter would be given, and they refused. When men are in the midst of battle, niceties are not always observed. That is not a massacre, that is WAR. Like that Yankee General Sherman said..War is hell

        It is amazing to me that people whine about that, but they never bother to mention the atrocities committed against non-combatant civilians by William T. Sherman.
        I believe the term is selective history.

  • larry boning Jan 4, 2014 @ 16:36

    Read a little more history before you make comments on it. There was no massacre at Fort Pillow. Further, to refer to an engagement that involved a few hundred men in a war with a million casualties as the “biggest” ANYTHING is patently absurd. Finally, people misuse Forrest’s legacy as often as not. And the man he became would be more than happy to share the billing with a civil rights leader.
    That man, by the way, is the man that Forrest’s staunchest proponents celebrate. If all he was a backward -looking, mean-spirited racist, the world would have long since moved past him, despite his astonishing war record. His ideas on civil rights however, were a hundred years ahead of their time and light years past the most enlightened remarks of Abraham Lincoln. Don’t believe me? Fine. It’s all there for anyone to see. Read. Read before you write.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 4, 2014 @ 17:08

      Thanks for the comment, Larry.

      His ideas on civil rights however, were a hundred years ahead of their time and light years past the most enlightened remarks of Abraham Lincoln.

      Fascinating stuff.

  • Craig Swain Feb 6, 2013 @ 18:16

    The Memphis City Council session was recorded and is posted on line (http://memphis.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=6&clip_id=3179) – Agenda items number 41 and 42 in the navigation window.

    Like local politics anywhere, one must consider context. There’s much the casual viewer will miss not knowing the background of the speakers or other particulars. While I’ve lived in the Memphis area some time back, I can’t say I’ve kept track of who’s who. But I will say there was a sense of unanimity on the council, that usually is not present (I hesitate to say “traditionally at odds with itself” but maybe it fits).

    The factor driving that unity was perceived interference from the state level (as you do point out). Flinn’s remark – “the ironic war of aggression from our northern neighbors in Nashville” – is certainly aimed to grab editorial space. And at the same time an interesting turn of logic. Yet at the same time, there was no disarming in the arguments with respect to Forest, Jefferson Davis, or the Confederacy from those given turns at the podium.

    Perhaps the best way to characterize this is to say the City of Memphis voted to reserve its right to name its parks what ever they darn well please. And in my opinion that is fine… so long as they don’t touch Tom Lee Park.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2013 @ 18:22

      Thanks for the link. You are probably right that the lopsided vote had more to do with the threat from Nasville than the issues related to Forrest specifically.

  • bobhuddleston Feb 6, 2013 @ 9:10

    Tennessee has produced three American presidents. But in the state there are more monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest than there for the three chief executives combined.

    However, this has not always been true. Some years ago while visiting that small skirmish in Southern Pennsylvania, I purchased a color reprint of a 22X 8.5 lithograph, done, evidently originally printed when money was being raised for the Lee/Virginia monument. It is copied from one at the Museum of the Confederacy.

    The center shows the caption, “Our Heroes and Our Flags,” with a picture of Lee flanked by a marching Rebel and a mounted one. Above is a medal (UCV?) and below, they are surrounded by the four Confederate flags, incorrectly labeled as “No. 1,” “No. 2,” “No. 3” and “No. 4.” “Two” is the battle flag, and one, three and four are the seven star “Stars and Bars,”
    “Stainless Banner” and the final one with the red band. In the middle is a prototype
    of the Virginia monument, with a fancy base and no statues around it. The Monument was dedicated in June 1917, so the lithograph must be earlier than that, and was printed before the final monument was finalized. Let us date it as circa 1910.

    What is interesting is that around the perimeter are eighteen Confederate leaders. Across the top are, from left to right, Bragg, Beauregard, Davis, Alexander Stephens and Stonewall Jackson. Down the left margin, under Bragg, are Hood, Powell Hill, Longstreet, and Samuel Cooper. On the right side, under Stonewall, we find Sterling Price, Polk, Hardee and JEB Stuart. Across the bottom, from under Cooper to under Stuart, we find Wade Hampton, Ewell, John Morgan, Kirby Smith and Joe Johnston.

    There are several surprising things about the choice of people to commemorate: first, is the inclusion of Old Peter – one would have thought that, since this was the height of the Lost Cause, Longstreet would have been boycotted. Second, is the division of the men between the East and the West: two politicians, one general staff officer, and, by my count, five ANV leaders, six AoT and Trans-Mississippi, and four who had notable leadership in both (rather arbitrary, my choice of “both” is Beauregard, Hood, Longstreet and Joe Johnston.) Without arguing about my divisions, the selections are well balanced – but stronger on Westerners.

    And third, who they included. Beside the anathematized Longstreet, why John Morgan? The others are all corps and army commanders, except for Morgan.

    And, finely, of relevance here, why was Forrest not included? He was a corps commander and a lieutenant general. In the early years of the twentieth century, was Bedford Forrest not considered to be in the Confederate pantheon? If not, when did he become one of the Most Famous Civil War Generals? I can not imagine a similar poster today not including Forrest.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2013 @ 10:21

      All good questions. My own understanding of Forrest comes from Brian Steele Wills’s biography, The Confederacy’s Greatest Cavalryman. He doesn’t get into issues of memory, but I do know there is a more recent study out that does.

  • Billy Bearden Feb 5, 2013 @ 21:08

    Councilman Myron Lowery has been pushing Ida B Wells to be honored with a statue and park name since at least 2005.
    IF she is as worthy as he claims she is (and from what I gather she was certainly worthy of some recognition) then why:
    1) Does her recognition only coincide with being included with NB Forrest?
    why must all Confederate heritage be removed and replaced with Civil Rights heritage?
    2) Why, after at least almost 8 years has no recognition been created for Ms Wells?
    certainly there was some new road, bridge, school, building, place that could use a name, or a statue erected someplace prominently…

    I watched in disgust all the live CCTV broadcasts of the 3 various meetings on the Memphis Govt website at all the vile hatred Memphis ‘leaders’ exhibited, from all the black ‘leaders’ getting up and walking out as HK spoke, to the laughing and backslapping as the ‘leaders’ joked about removing the Forrest Statue and the remains (they are all archived)

    Why can’t these same ‘leaders’ lead the 29% of the population out of poverty? Cut down on crimes? Why just the emphasis at symbolism over substance?


    • Kevin Levin Feb 6, 2013 @ 6:52

      First of all, H.K. Edgerton has only himself to blame for how folks respond to his “speeches.” This has been in the works for some time and the best the SCV can muster is the claim on local television that Forrest was a “very humane slave trader.” Yep, that’s going to win support. The push to honor Wells is tied up with the push to remove Forrest. You know that.

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