"Freedom" Rings in Park that Once Honored Defender of Slavery
Saturday's Juneteenth celebration in Memphis came with double the significance this year. It was the first time June 19th was recognized as a national holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. And it was held in a park once defined by a controversial memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Civil War general who also ran a local slave trading business and later helped form the Ku Klux Klan. After a decades-long fight to remove the monument, some of those involved reflect on how it was finally accomplished.
Growing up as a Black man in Memphis during segregation, Walter Bailey often passed the Downtown park named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, adorned with a 9,500 pound bronze statue of the general on horseback. He wasn’t impressed by the towering Confederate tribute, but at the time, didn’t dwell on it.
“I tolerated it, took it as business as usual,” says Bailey, an 80-year-old civil rights activist, lawyer and former longtime Shelby County commissioner.
Then came a visit from a New York business associate decades later in the early 2000s. As they walked along Downtown’s waterfront, they passed a different park with another statue of one of the Confederacy’s leading figures—its president.
The associate stared in disbelief.
“And he bellowed: ‘Jefferson Davis!’ He said, ‘only in Memphis, TN,” Bailey recalls.
After that, Bailey decided he couldn’t tolerate the monuments any longer. To him, they honored legacies of racial oppression and were erected to reinforce it.
“They’re there to give a message—a message to the community—that you're in the South, and we’re segregated, and you stay in your place,” he says.
Bailey began to lobby for their removal and to rename parks with Confederate titles, revitalizing a cause that other activists and groups such as the NAACP had already been pushing for decades. In 2005, advocates even got Rev. Al Sharpton to rally Memphians.
Resistance was plentiful.
There were “snide remarks that we got more things to do than to worry about the names of parks,” Bailey says.
Opposition also came from those who contend Forrest and Davis are iconic figures worthy of public pedestals. Others argue that adding historical context to the monuments is better than hiding them away.
“If you would have said 10 years ago: Would we be able to move a 10,000 [pound] monument dedicated to Forrest in the heart of the South, in Tennessee? The answer quite obviously would have been no,” says current Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner.
State lawmakers also entered the contentious debate. In 2013, the Republican dominated legislature introduced and later passed a ban on cities removing or renaming historical monuments on public property unless approved by a state commission.
To beat the restriction going into effect, Memphis officials quickly changed the name of three local confederate-labeled parks, including the one housing the Davis statue, in early 2013. Forrest Park became Health Sciences Park.
In the years following, sentiment to remove Confederate monuments accelerated across the country in response to the racially-motivated shooting of nine Black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina and the deadly white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017.
That same year, Memphis officials petitioned the Tennessee Historical Commission for permission to take down its Confederate statues. They wanted the structures gone before the city commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 2018. A determined local grassroots movement also propelled the crusade.
“I didn’t know if it was going to take a few months or if it was going to take years,” says activist and now county commissioner Tami Sawyer, who created the “Take ‘Em Down 901” campaign, which organized petitions and rallies to demand action.
“Take ‘Em Down brought the public to the fight,” Sawyer says. “Take ‘Em Down brought the nation to the fight.”
The historical commission denied the city’s request, but it wouldn’t be the final word on the matter.
“We knew it was all or nothing on December the 20th,” says Turner.
That’s when the city sold ownership of two of the contested parks to Turner’s newly established nonprofit Memphis Greenspace for $1,000 each. Now no longer government property, the Forrest and Davis statues were free to be removed. That night, workers took them away.
“It was time to move forward, and it was time to turn the page,” Turner says.
Not everyone wanted to turn that page. The group Sons of Confederate Veterans and descendants of the Forrest family took the city to court contesting the legality of the land transfer. After a judge upheld the transaction, the family eventually agreed to relocate the statue to the National Confederate Museum in Middle Tennessee.
“It may come to where private land is the only place for any American monument these days,” says Lee Millar, a spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Earlier this month Millar helped oversee the removal process of Forrest and his wife’s graves that were interred below the equestrian statue in the park. Forrest and his wife were originally buried in Elmwood Cemetery, but were moved to Health Sciences Park in 1905 as a way to memorialize him. The remains are also destined for the museum.
“We wanted it to be in a safe place where it could be visited, respected and the general could be honored,” he says.
Members of the Forrest family said in a statement they hope the move brings closure—for them and the City of Memphis.
Edward Phillips, a Forrest family lawyer, says “everyone benefits” from this “difficult decision” to reinter the remains outside of Memphis. He said because of the public nature of the park, the integrity of the gravesites had been compromised in recent years as the statue became a flashpoint.
Still, Edwards isn’t convinced that Confederate monuments should continue to be moved.
He says he’d prefer to erect new tributes to people like civil rights leaders as a juxtaposition.
“You can look at a timeline, in essence, in your head if you’re viewing these multiple monuments in one place,” Phillips says. “You can see where we’ve been, our struggle to get where we are and where we are today.”
But for many, where we are today is epitomized by last weekend’s Juneteenth celebrations in a park that now looks—and feels—more like all the others.
“That park deserves to be free and unencumbered,” Sawyer says.
This post has been updated.