Tensions rise in Memphis as slave trader’s remains are removed

By Maria Cramer

Traditionally, residents of Memphis, Tennessee, celebrate Juneteenth at Robert R. Church Park, named for the city’s first Black millionaire.

But this year, residents and city officials plan to celebrate the end of slavery 1 mile away, at a park where the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and leader of the Ku Klux Klan who owned and traded enslaved workers, have been buried under a marble base since 1905.

Workers hired by the Sons of Confederate Veterans are digging up and removing the copper coffins that hold the remains of Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann. The remains and a statue of Forrest that had towered over the park, once named after the general, will be moved 200 miles away, to the National Confederate Museum in Columbia, Tennessee.

The excavation may take several weeks, according to Lee Millar, a spokesman for the group, which represents direct descendants of Confederate soldiers and promotes a revisionist view of the Civil War.

But even if the process is not completed by June 19, the Juneteenth celebration will take place at the park, now known as Health Sciences Park, according to Michalyn Easter-Thomas of the Memphis City Council.

“Having him there was like having him dance on our graves, the graves of our ancestors,” she said. “You can go quietly. We won’t miss you.”

The exhumation follows years of protests at the site, decades of demands from the city’s Black residents to remove the statue and the remains, and numerous court fights over what should happen to the burial site.

Tensions have erupted at the site since the excavation began. Debris from the burial site was dumped on a Black Lives Matter mural that had been painted around the base where Forrest’s statue had stood.

On Tuesday, Tami Sawyer, a Shelby County commissioner who had led a campaign to remove statues of Confederate leaders around Memphis, was heckled by a Sons of Confederate Veterans volunteer as she spoke to reporters at the site.

The volunteer, waving a Confederate flag, loudly sang “Dixie” (“I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten”) as Sawyer described how her ancestors picked cotton.

Sawyer said in a statement that since then, she had been threatened on social media.

“As a public official, Commissioner Sawyer is not opposed to critique and heckling, but these messages are racially violent and threatening to her physical safety,” her office said in the statement.

Sgt. Louis Brownlee, a Memphis Police Department spokesman, said in an email that the department was investigating her complaints. No arrests have been made, he said.

Millar said a green security fence had been placed around the excavation site to keep the area secure and “to keep spectators away so no one would get involved and get hurt.”

He said that the volunteer began singing because Sawyer was disrupting the workers by holding a “press spectacle.”

The statues of Forrest and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, in Memphis Park were removed Dec. 20, 2017, the same night the City Council voted to sell both parks to the nonprofit organization Memphis Greenspace for $1,000 each.

The move allowed the city to skirt the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, a state law that prohibits the removal, relocation or renaming of memorials on public property and that state officials had used before to keep the city from removing the statues.

After the City Council vote, cranes maneuvered into the parks and removed both statues as crowds cheered and struck up songs such as “Hit the Road Jack.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the city after the statues were removed and accused officials of violating a grave site and scheming to circumvent state law.

The organization later settled with the city, agreeing to drop the lawsuit in exchange for taking possession of the statues and the remains of Forrest and his wife.

Millar said it would cost about $200,000 to exhume the remains and move the coffins and the statue. The group raised the money for the project through donations.

Forrest’s remains will be taken to “a better place,” said Millar, who identified himself as a distant cousin of Forrest’s and as a spokesman for his direct descendants.

“It’s sad you have to move a grave of anybody and particularly that of a veteran and a general like that, but it will be better for everybody,” he said.

The debate over what to do with statues of Forrest has divided Tennesseans over the years.

A Republican legislator proposed building a statue of Dolly Parton to replace a bust of Forrest that looms prominently in the Tennessee State Capitol. A petition calling for the replacement has amassed nearly 26,000 signatures.

Last June, Black legislators left the Capitol in tears and anger after proposals to remove the bust of Forrest and other divisive figures failed. In March, the Tennessee Historical Commission voted to remove the bust at the statehouse.

In Memphis, the monument to Forrest “was one of constant pain to the majority African American community,” Councilman Jeff Warren said. “The vast majority of our citizens are glad to see the statue and the remains go.”

Defenders of Forrest’s legacy said that detractors fail to recognize his military skills and that toward the end of his life, he called for racial reconciliation in a speech before the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, a fraternal organization of Black men.

But William Sturkey, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written about Forrest’s enduring hold on many white Southerners, said Forrest was “the most unrepentant soldier of maybe the entire conflict.”

Sturkey said he was doubtful the next burial site would acknowledge the fortune that Forrest made through the slave trade, his role in the Ku Klux Klan or his role in the massacre at Fort Pillow in 1864, when forces led by Forrest killed hundreds of Union soldiers, most of them Black, as they tried to surrender.

“I’m not optimistic it will be a useful and educational display,” he said. “But at least Black kids won’t have to look at it in Memphis.”

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