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VOL. 130 | NO. 132 | Thursday, July 9, 2015

Forrest Vote Signals Change in General’s Legacy

By Bill Dries

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When the city of Memphis voted to rename Forrest Park and two other Confederate-themed parks in Downtown Memphis two years ago, City Council member Bill Boyd criticized the move and extolled Nathan Bedford Forrest’s virtues.

The city of Memphis begins the process of moving the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest as well as the graves of Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann, in the base of the monument. 

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

But on Tuesday, July 7, Boyd merely watched as critics of the city’s plan to move Forrest’s grave made some of the same points.

They once more recited a single speech Forrest made after the Civil War to the black Pall Bearer’s Society, in which he pledged to help recently freed slaves in business and civic affairs.

Lee Millar, the head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a former chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission, argued the equestrian statue that lords over the graves of Forrest and his wife Mary Ann is history and a deserved tribute.

“We need to promote history and learn from it,” Millar said. “He was a great Memphis citizen.”

Catherine Blaylock went further.

“He was not in charge of the KKK,” she said. “He was not even a member. It was never proven.”

No one bothered to refute what Blaylock said, which is blatantly contradicted by historical accounts of Forrest’s Ku Klux Klan contemporaries who were present at his induction, at the Maxwell House hotel in Nashville in 1866, as the Klan’s first Grand Wizard.

When Millar and several others reminded the council that Forrest was once an alderman on what was the city’s antebellum version of the city council, it got Boyd’s attention.

Boyd is a descendant of the city’s first mayor, Marcus Winchester. He also has his own history in city government, helping coordinate its move from the Shelby County Courthouse to the then-newly built City Hall in the mid-1960’s.

“Who knows what is the truth?” Boyd said of his recent rereading and consideration of Forrest’s turbulent history. “The thing I can’t overcome in my mind is that he was a slave trader. I just cannot forgive him for that. That’s where I’ve landed on the subject.”

It made the council vote unanimous and put Boyd on the same side of the vote total as council member Janis Fullilove, who just two years ago taunted Boyd for his opposition to the parks renaming.

Fullilove remained blunt Tuesday about Forrest’s defenders, including those contending that the Klan was a fraternal society and not the night-riding group that terrorized and killed newly freed slaves.

“That’s a bunch of bull,” she said. “I know it and he knew it too. … I think that statue, whoever wants it can come and get it. Put it in your front yard if you want, as long as it’s not against city code.”

Council chairman Myron Lowery along with Mayor A C Wharton Jr. proposed the move in the wake of last month’s Charleston Emanuel AME church massacre in which a suspect with white supremacist beliefs that specifically reference the Confederacy is charged with killing nine worshipers.

Just hours before Tuesday’s council vote in Memphis, South Carolina’s State Senate voted to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol’s grounds in Charleston.

The latest incremental change in times has come with less bombast than numerous earlier controversies over the statue and Forrest’s legacy.

Advocates of the move this time used Forrest’s will to make their case, saying he wanted to be buried in Elmwood. (He originally was buried there but his and Mary Ann’s graves were moved in 1905 after the monument was erected.)

One of the next stops in the process will almost certainly be in Chancery Court where the city’s disinterment motion, as well as Forrest’s descendants, will be heard.

Elmwood Cemetery executive director Kim McCollum told Lowery Tuesday before the vote that the Forrest’s family plots in Elmwood are still open and that the cemetery’s leadership is offering them as well as other services free of charge to the city.

The city already is hearing from groups interested in the Forrest monument including some connected to the Shiloh military park in West Tennessee.

McCollum wrote Lowery that the monument is too big for Elmwood. The Sons of Confederate Veterans claim it weighs 9,500 pounds and is more than 21 feet tall.

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