VOL. 132 | NO. 252 | Thursday, December 21, 2017
Nonprofit Leader: Removal of 2 Memphis Confederate Monuments 'Only the Beginning'
By Bill Dries
Attorney and Shelby County commission Van Turner, who leads the nonprofit that bought Health Sciences Park and had the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest removed from it Wednesday meets the press Thursday, Dec. 21, at the park. (Daily News/Bill Dries)
The morning after the city’s two best-known Confederate memorials came down in a pair of city parks, the attorney and Shelby County commissioner who leads the private nonprofit to whom the city sold the parks said the organization has plans to “liberate” other parks.
“I stand before you humbled by the progress we have made,” Van Turner, president of Memphis Greenspace Inc., said Thursday, Dec. 21, as he and other board members of the group stood at the base of the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument that no longer includes the equestrian statue of the Confederate general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.
The Forrest monument in Health Sciences Park, along with a statue of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park, were removed Wednesday night within an hour and a half of each other.
“This is only the beginning,” Turner said. “There are other parks that need to be liberated from mediocrity and returned to the people as a unifying asset.”
And Turner says the 501(c)(3) nonprofit chartered by the state in October is raising money for that goal, the expenses of removing and storing the statues, and any legal battle that might follow the removal of the Forrest and Davis monuments.
“When we wake up tomorrow morning, we still will have issues with education, we still will have issues with poverty, we still will have issues with public safety,” Turner said. “This doesn’t resolve any of that. What this does is move this out the way. This is a nonissue now.”
The Memphis City Council set the removal of the statues in motion Wednesday in a quick vote without debate on a last-minute substitute ordinance.
The vote reclassified Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park as open spaces instead of parks, then turned them over to Memphis Greenspace for $1,000 each. With that, Memphis Greenspace arranged for Allworld Project Management to remove the statues.
Within minutes of the council vote, before citizens in the chamber could get a copy of the substitute ordinance, Memphis Police sealed off both parks with convoys of police cars. That was followed by police completely sealing off all streets around the parks and putting steel barriers in place. City dump trucks were used to block some roads into the immediate area around the parks.
Turner said Memphis Greenspace will pay for all those expenses. The two statues are together at a location Turner would not disclose.
“We are hopeful that at some point in time we can negotiate the transfer of those statues,” he said. “I’m sure there are those that want the statues.”
Turner also said his group will “be very respectful” toward Forrest’s descendants. Forrest and his wife are buried in the plaza where the statue stood since 1905. Turner mentioned that in the past Elmwood Cemetery has offered to reinter the Forrests there. Forrest and his wife were originally buried at Elmwood.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, in a written statement, described Memphis Greenspace as a “sham nonprofit.”
Turner denied that and said the organization approached the city independently. He also said he expects the issue might wind up in court.
“I’m sure that others will seek the course of redress. … I think that we are prepared for any legal issues that will come up and we’ll see what the courts say,” Turner added. “This is not a shady deal. This is a legal deal. We all know the background.”
A half hour after the Forrest statue’s removal Wednesday at 9:01 p.m., Strickland told reporters, “History is being made in Memphis tonight.”
“These statues no longer represent who we are in the modern diverse city called Memphis,” Strickland 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.”
A crowd gathered across Union Avenue from the statue of Forrest, whose likeness on horseback was in darkness. Lights brought by the workers preparing to remove the statue lit it in silhouette. The name of one of the companies taking part in the removal of the statue was covered over on a flatbed truck.
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 monument.
“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, which has been calling on the city to move more quickly to remove the monuments. The group also has been critical of Strickland.
“There was so much negativity around this,” Sawyer said. “People told us this was the wrong fight and that we were doing it for the wrong reason. 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.”
Turner said despite the different outlooks on how to pursue the same goal, Sawyer and other activists who remain critical of the city’s strategy deserve credit.
“Them applying pressure was helpful. It would be disingenuous of me to say they were not helpful to keep the focus on this issue. It takes new blood,” Turner said. “This issue has been going on for a long time. … I want to acknowledge them, thank them and say this is only the beginning.”