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Memphis Removes Two Confederate Statues

One was dedicated to Jefferson Davis, the other to Nathan Bedford Forrest

A 2010 picture of the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, which was removed from Health Sciences Park (formerly Nathan Bedford Forrest Park) in downtown Memphis last December. (Wikimedia)
smithsonian.com

On Wednesday, the Memphis City Council voted to sell two city parks to a private non-profit organization. Within hours of the council’s decision, cranes rolled into the parks and removed two contentious Confederate statues, as Daniel Connolly and Vivian Wang of the New York Times report.

The statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and slave trader who is widely believed to have served as the first grand wizard or leader of the Ku Klux Klan, stood in Health Sciences Park and was taken down first. The other monument, which paid tribute to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was removed soon afterward from Memphis Park.

By selling the parks to a private entity, Memphis was able to circumvent the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, which prohibits the removal, renaming, rededication or alteration of any monument or memorial on public property. The group Sons of Confederate Veterans, which opposed the move, claimed in a statement that the city had “willfully violate[d] state law.” But Memphis mayor Jim Strickland emphasized in his own statement that the “law allows a city to sell land to a private entity. The law allows a private entity to remove items such as statues from its own land.”

Memphis now joins an ever-growing list of American cities that have taken down Confederate monuments in the aftermath of the white nationalist rally to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in deadly violence. According to Mayor Strickland’s statement, Memphis's city council voted unanimously to remove the Forrest statue two years ago. But with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death approaching, city officials became particularly anxious to see this statue—and the one of Davis—go.

King was assassinated in Memphis in April of 1968, and thousands of visitors are expected to converge on the city to commemorate this historic event. “As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, it’s important that these relics of the Confederacy and defenders of slavery don’t continue to be displayed in prominent places in our city,” Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee said in a statement.

Back in October, the Tennessee Historical Commission blocked a waiver that would have allowed the city to evade the prohibition on removing monuments from public property. So Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner and other officials established Memphis Greenspace Inc., a private nonprofit that would buy the parks, according to Fred Barbash of the Washington Post. Once the City Council granted its approval on Wednesday, Mayor Strickland sold the parks to Greenspace Inc. for $1,000 each. Soon afterward, the statues were gone.

“The Forrest statue was placed in 1904, as Jim Crow segregation laws were enacted,” Mayor Strickland said in his statement. “The Davis statue was placed in 1964, as the Civil Rights Movement changed our country. The statues no longer represent who we are as a modern, diverse city with momentum.”

For many residents of Memphis, there was no love lost. According to Connolly and Wang of the Times, crowds that had gathered to watch the removal of the Davis monument broke out into a chorus of “Hit the road Jack!”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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