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VOL. 132 | NO. 252 | Thursday, December 21, 2017

Forrest and Davis Statues Removed As City Sells Parks

By Bill Dries

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The statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest came down first Wednesday, Dec. 20, followed by the state of Jefferson Davis in another city park. The action came minutes after the city council approved selling the two parks to a private nonprofit entity. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

With a quick vote without debate on a last-minute substitute ordinance, the Memphis City Council set in motion Wednesday, Dec. 20, the removal of Confederate monuments in two city parks.

And four hours later the equestrian statue of Confederate General, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard that has stood for more than 100 years was removed from its base by a crane and taken to an undisclosed location. An hour after that another crane moved into Memphis Park to remove the statue of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis.

“History is being made in Memphis tonight,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said a half hour after the Forrest statue’s removal at 9:01 p.m.

“These statues no longer represent who we are in the modern diverse city called Memphis,” he added. “I was committed to removing these statues in a lawful manner. From the beginning we have followed state law and tonight’s action is no different. The Historical Commission was not the only legal avenue.”

The vote by the council turned over Health Sciences Park and Memphis Parks to a nonprofit organization, Memphis Greenspace Inc., and declares what were once parks as open spaces. With that, Memphis Greenspace arranged for the removal of the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Health Sciences Park and Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park. Strickland said all of it was paid for privately with no expense to the city.

Within minutes of the council vote, before citizens in the chamber could get a copy of the substitute ordinance, Memphis Police sealed off all sides of both parks with convoys of police cars. That was followed by police completely sealing off all streets around the parks and putting in place steel barriers. City dump trucks were used to block some roads into the immediate area around the parks.

A crowd gathered across Union Avenue from the statue of Forrest, whose likeness on horseback was in darkness. Lights brought by the workers preparing the statue for removal lighted the statue in silhouette. The name of one of the companies taking part in the removal of the statue was covered over on a flatbed truck.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and his administration had set a Dec. 19 deadline for mediation efforts in one part of the legal dispute that were suggested by the state. Strickland’s stated goal was the removal of the monuments or at least permission to remove them from state authorities in place by the end of 2017.

When a hearing before an administrative judge and mediation sessions got pushed into the new year, Strickland said the city administration and council acted based on the city charter provision that gives the city the right to sell land and for a private entity to then remove or sell property from that park.

Memphis Greenspace filed its charter as a private nonprofit with the state in October and was sold the parks by the city for $1,000 each. The council vote Tuesday sealed the sale.

The president of Memphis Greenspace is attorney and Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner.

Strickland said he did not know if the nonprofit had a buyer for the monuments.

Among those in the crowd across Union from Forrest Park was Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey, who decades ago called for the removal of the Forrest statue.

“I’m ecstatic and those who have been in the struggle for the removal of these despicable monuments join me in my ecstasy,” he said. “It’s a turning point in terms of our history. Words can’t express how jubilant I am.”

Also in the crowd was Tami Sawyer, founder of the Take Them Down 901 effort that has been calling on the city to move quicker to remove the monuments. The group has also been critical of Strickland.

“I’ve got to be honest. I cried when we got up here,” she said. “We got to the statue and then they made us get out of the park.”

Sawyer said those who came to the park to protest through the summer in demonstrations that included an August protest in which six people were arrested by police when some in the crowd began climbing onto the equestrian statue forced the issue.

“There was so much negativity around this. People told us this was the wrong fight and that we were doing it for the wrong reason,” she said. “I believe the collective force of how many people believed that it needed to happen now, that the city finally found a way to remove them.”

Bailey said the city deserved credit for pursuing the legal course it did.

“I feel that it is quite an honor on the part of our city leaders for them to have steadfastly stayed the course,” he said. “They never gave up. They encountered numerous obstacles but they persevered. And now we are seeing the fruits of their labor and their perseverance.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, in a written statement, described Memphis Greenspace as a “sham nonprofit.”

In a separate response, SCV Commander in Chief Thomas V. Strain Jr. said the city action is “a direct violation of state law and we must allow the state to pursue this case in a lawful manner.”

“We have been fighting this case for over five years and damn sure don’t plan on backing down now,” he added. “My advice to each of you is to stay away from Memphis. I would say that the Memphis police will not tolerate any action around these statues.”

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