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A New History for an Old Confederate

Angela Kim

On a day when Memphis was commemorating a tragic event of 50 years ago, one church took an hour to reflect upon a much older stain on the pages of history.

The crowd was standing-room-only at Calvary Episcopal Church, where a midday "Service of Reconciliation" was held to dedicate a new historical marker on the property, this one erected as a response to an older marker nearby, placed in 1955.

A year after the outlaw of segregation, the Tennessee Historical Commission honored the location of the former Memphis home of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The plaque noted Forrest's entrepreneurial acumen, but made no mention that the source of his great wealth was slavery.

A new marker -- with text researched by Rhodes College history students and funded by the National Park Service -- corrects this omission, and pays tribute to the men, women and children dehumanized by the "peculiar institution."

“We speak their names also as an act of confession, to drop the illusion of innocence and to restore a proper tension to our lives,” Rev. Scott Walters said before the congregation began calling out the names of those who were once sold in the shadow of the church.

Minister Dorothy Wells, joined students and clergy in explaining why a day of reconciliation was necessary.

“There is no black history, there is no white history, there is a history of all of us who have lived in this country together for 400 years," she said. "The truth of that history is that there is a lot of painful stuff in our history."

Over the past semester,  Rhodes history students worked to uncover the details of slave auctions that took place in Forrest's "slave mart" that operated behind the church in the 1850s.

Rhodes sophomore Sarah Eiland was adamant the whole story be told.

“Recognizing these lives that were forgotten about, that haven’t had the chance to be remembered and get the dignity that they deserve,” Eiland said. “I think it’s very important that on our marker now we say exactly what happened here and we spare no words."

To Wells, the bells that rang across the country Wednesday afternoon to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination also honored those who would never reap the benefits of King's mission.

Credit Angela Kim
Congregants during the Service of Reconciliation at Calvary Episcopal Church.

“We’re honoring the legacy of someone who fought for justice for everyone by remembering those who were nameless and unknown," she said. "By giving voice to them, this is a tremendous day for Memphis, Tennessee."

After the service, attendees gathered around the new marker, reading the whole story of Confederate "hero," finally depicted in a contemporary light.