Parks Controversy Back to City Council

By Bill Dries

The committee recommendations are in for new names for three Confederate-themed city parks. And the long-running controversy about the parks is now back to the Memphis City Council.

The statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest would remain, but an ad hoc committee is recommending to the Memphis City Council changing the name of Forrest Park to Civil War Memorial Park. 

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The ad hoc committee of nine, which included several historians and two City Council members, held its final meeting Monday, April 29, and voted with little discussion on several ideas for what used to be known as Confederate, Forrest and Jefferson Davis parks.

The council gave each of the parks temporary names earlier this year in lieu of permanent ones. The committee’s role was to come up with recommendations. But none of those are binding on the council.

The recommendations of the group are to rename Nathan Bedford Forrest Park as Civil War Memorial Park with an added recommendation that the statue of the Confederate general, slave trader and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan as well as his grave and that of his wife remain there.

Jefferson Davis Park would be renamed Harbor Park for its location at the Wolf River Harbor.

And Confederate Park, on the bluff above Jefferson Davis Park, would be renamed Promenade Park. The promenade is an area set aside by the city’s founders and their heirs for public uses only from Union Avenue to the current site of The Pyramid, between Front Street and the Mississippi River.

Eight of the nine committee members were present for the Monday meeting and none of the votes on the recommendations were unanimous.

“We are a tale of two cities,” said Shelby County Historical Commission Chairman Jimmy Ogle. “That’s very obvious right here and right now as we are trying to work this out.”

The committee voted down other recommendations including restoring all three of the old names as well as naming Jefferson Davis Park in honor of the late civil rights leader Maxine Smith, who died last week.

“Naming a park after her would not do her justice,” said council member Harold Collins. “There are in my opinion several other places where she could be prominently remembered. For us to hastily jump into a position where we are emotionally tied to it at this point would not do the entire city justice and her legacy justice.”

Also defeated on a tie vote was the name Naval Battle of Memphis Park for Confederate Park suggested by council member Bill Boyd.

University of Memphis historian Beverly Bond said if Confederate Park becomes Promenade Park, monuments in the park should reflect information about the city’s founding instead of the park’s current orientation in the Civil War and the gunboat battle on the Memphis riverfront in 1862.

Fellow University of Memphis historian Doug Cupples, who differed with Bond on changing the names, suggested any new markers should be reviewed by the Shelby County Historical Commission. Bond said history professors at the University of Memphis and Rhodes College should also be consulted as well as the West Tennessee Historical Society.

When Confederate Park got a new marker on the gunboat battle several years ago, it underwent a revision after the historical commission objected to wording in the first version that said the city was surrendered to Union forces after the gun battle.

Meanwhile, the committee reviewed a legal opinion Monday from City Council attorney Allan Wade saying the council has the authority to not only rename the park but to relocate the statue of Forrest.

Wade, in the opinion, wrote that the decision to name the park after Forrest in 1899 and permit the statue commissioned with private funds in 1905 “was a political decision by the council made at the urging of Confederate and Monument Societies.”

“It seems equally fair for the present council to make a political decision to rename the park based on the desires of its various constituencies,” Wade continued. “The only difference being the involvement of all points of view in the current debate.”

The city would have to initiate a Shelby County Chancery Court lawsuit to disinter the remains of Forrest and his wife who are buried at the monument and secure a place for them to be reinterred. Wade noted in his legal opinion that the Forrest family plot where Forrest and his wife were originally buried is still available at Elmwood Cemetery.

Cupples said the present burial sites are part of the monument, arguing the two are one in the same.