VOL. 11 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 28, 2018
Web Extra: Forrest Slave Market Site Emerges From Past As Part of Heritage Trail
By Bill Dries
The same week as the formal re-opening of the Universal Life Insurance building, Tim Huebner, a Rhodes College history professor, and the students in his “historical methods” class went to Calvary Episcopal Church to unveil a new historical marker that marks the site of a very different business success story.
“We think that based on the records we do have that this was one of the longest operating and therefore most significant slave trading sites in Memphis,” Huebner said of what is now a parking lot just east of the church.
It was a slave market operated by Nathan Bedford Forrest, who later became a Confederate general during the Civil War and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. And the site is one of several still developing that will be included in Heritage Trail tours.
A nearby Tennessee Historical Commission market from 1955 on the property notes that it had been Forrest’s home, but leaves out any reference to the slave market that made Forrest a wealthy man.
Huebner and his students went in search of names and any other information that might identify the men, women and children sold at the slave market. They found 72 names in their research – in most cases a first name only and an age.
“Those records include the city directories. Bills of sale are a significant source which we used in order to come up with a list of names,” Huebner said of the research done primarily at the Memphis-Shelby County Room of the Memphis Public Libraries and the Shelby County Archives. “We were also able to add other names based on a handful of newspaper articles and bills of sale. Those bills of sale, city directors, newspapers were the main sources that we used to do the research.”
Huebner and his students read the names at a memorial service in the church before the plaque was unveiled. The church bell tolled as the names were read, a standing-room only crowd coming to its feet after the first few names were read.
Among the names Huebner read was Harrison, a 14-year-old boy, sold on his own, and Mary, age 15, also sold on her own. That is despite Forrest defenders who claim that Forrest was “humane” because he would never allow a family sold at his market to be separated from one other. Still other Forrest defenders deny he was ever a slave trader or in the Ku Klux Klan, despite ample historical evidence of both.
“Overwhelmingly these are individual sales,” Huebner said. “There were a few sales of families but typically the family was just a mother and a very young child. … That 3-month-old would have been sold with the mother. That was fairly typical if it was a baby, an infant, a toddler.”
Calvary rector Rev. Scott Walters said the past that took place while the church was its neighbor is also a force in what happens next for the oldest public building in the city.
“We spent several years trying to get it,” Walters said of the property bought from the city. “So now our plan is we prepare in the next few years for a larger reimagining of the Calvary block. … We know we want to honor what’s happened there. We know we want to expand what’s happened there.”
As the research by Rhodes students brought what happened on the site into vivid detail with names and ages, Walters said it captured the imagination of the parish.
“One of the persons who read names in the forum - he said, ‘I’m haunted by this. I’m haunted by this information that this market was happening while we were going to church. I want in some way for these people who were bought and sold to be our patron saints.’”
“We honor them today but in our tradition it is a tradition of individuals whose lives and stories and sufferings actually expand our vision of what it means to be human,” Walters said.