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VOL. 128 | NO. 27 | Friday, February 8, 2013

Forrest Fire

Historians bring differing perspective to park debate

By Bill Dries

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When the Memphis City Council got around to the discussion that counted this week on the future of Forrest Park and, as it turns out, two other Civil War-themed parks, council member Myron Lowery was adamant.

Shannon Hamilton and Larry Dixon of Olive Branch look at the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue and burial site at Forrest Park, which gained a temporary name this week of Health Sciences Park.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“I don’t need a history lesson,” he said several times as historians of all types were seated in the council committee room Tuesday, Feb. 5.

The decision the council made later in the day to rename all three of the parks was based largely on a bill pending in the Tennessee Legislature that would forbid the city from renaming the parks and removing any statues or markers.

But it also featured a new moment in a controversy that has come to life repeatedly over the decades.

As Lowery’s proposal surfaced in January to add the name of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells to the park named for Confederate General, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest, several dozen historians at the University of Memphis weighed in.

It was a response to something Sons of Confederate Veterans leader and former Shelby County Historical Commission chairman Lee Millar has said often – historians would be “up in arms” over taking Forrest’s name off the park.

When attempts to rename the park and even remove the monument to Forrest surfaced in the past, Millar and other historians with ties to Confederate memorial organizations had always dominated the debate over Forrest’s history and defined it.

The Jan. 18 letter reacting to Millar signed by 45 faculty and graduate students in the University of Memphis history department signaled a shift.

“Mr. Millar does not speak for all historians,” the letter reads. “As professionally trained historians, we try to hold ourselves to ideals of rational objectivity and human decency. The undersigned faculty and graduate students in the Department of History at the University of Memphis support the removal of Forrest’s name from the park.”

Dr. Aram Goudsouzian, director of the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities at the University of Memphis, was among those who signed and was one of the historians involved in Tuesday’s City Hall discussion.

Goudsouzian made a distinction between Millar and other defenders of Forrest and “professional historians.”

“By professional historians, I speak of historians who have earned a Ph.D. in history, those who are teaching at universities or colleges, those who are members of established nationally recognized organizations such as the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association,” Goudsouzian said. “I think it’s fair and reasonable to say that with a few rare exceptions, professional historians in general find the celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park – Nathan Bedford Forrest in this park – to be distasteful.”

“No one is saying we should erase Nathan Bedford Forrest from our history books.”

–Dr. Aram Goudsouzian, Marcus W. Orr Center at the U of M

Millar, who was sitting a few feet away, later offered a very different view of Forrest, saying he was a “humane businessman” and that the Klan Forrest was a part of was a fraternal or social organization whose purpose was to “restore law and order to the South.”

Goudsouzian said the Klan was in Forrest’s time “an organization that any legitimate historian understands to be a terrorist organization whose primary purpose was to intimidate newly freed blacks from voting and achieving equality.”

Millar, who belongs to some of the history organizations mentioned by Goudsouzian, labeled that and other conclusions “pure Northern propaganda” spread by “Union propagandists.”

Goudsouzian told council members Forrest bought and sold people – a business that was looked down upon even in Forrest’s time by the very people who bought slaves from him and others.

Millar brought up Forrest’s post-war speech to a black fraternal organization two years before he died in which Forrest talked of racial equality.

Some historians, including Charles McKinney, associate professor and director of the African American Studies program at Rhodes College, believe Forrest was trying to build political or business alliances.

“This real or imagined unity he allegedly supported at the end of his life was in fact a unity predicated on the sustained political, social and economic subordination of African-Americans,” McKinney said. “Not someone whose values I think many of us would seek to emulate.”

Goudsouzian acknowledged that Forrest was as complex as anyone past or present and a product of his time. But he drew a distinction between chronicling and analyzing their role in history and honoring them.

“No one is saying we should erase Nathan Bedford Forrest from our history books – our understanding of history,” he said. “But a public park is not a history book. It’s a public space with a monument that suggests this person stands for values that we celebrate as a community.”

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