New Historic Marker Highlights Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Ties to the Slave Trade

An earlier marker only noted the Confederate general, widely believed to be the Ku Klux Klan’s first leader, became wealthy from his ‘business enterprises’

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Nathan Bedford Forrest Library of Congress

On the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s home in Memphis stands a historical marker, erected in 1955, featuring a brief biography of the Confederate general. The marker explains that after his marriage in 1845, Forrest moved from “middle Tennessee” to Memphis, where “his business enterprises made him wealthy.” The marker neglects to mention, however, that Forrest’s most lucrative business enterprise was trading slaves.

As David Waters of the Commercial Appeal reports, the National Park Service, Rhodes College and the Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis have collaborated to create a new marker that gives a more complete picture of Forrest’s controversial legacy. The marker will be unveiled on April 4 on the property of the Calvary Episcopal Church, which is located near the 1955 sign. According to Fox-affiliate WBRC, the church’s parking lot sits on the area where Forrest once operated his slave yard.

The text for the new marker was written by students of Rhodes College history professor Tim Huebner, who said in an interview with Waters that the 60-word marker from 1955 does not “tell the whole story.” The new sign will feature 462 words, elaborating on Forrest’s role in the Memphis slave trade and including a quote from Horatio Eden, who was sold from Forrest’s slave yard.

“From 1854 to 1860, Nathan Bedford Forrest operated a profitable slave trading business at this site,” the text reads in part, according to WBRC. “Most slaves were sold at lots like this one before ending up on plantations in the Mississippi Delta or further south. Horatio Eden, sold from Forrest’s yard as a child, remembered the place as a 'square stockade of high boards with two-room Negro houses around ...We were all kept in these rooms, but when an auction was held or buyers came, we were brought out and paraded two or three around a circular brick walk in the center of the stockade. The buyers would stand nearby and inspect us as we went by, stop us, and examine us.’”

By 1855, the marker adds, Forrest was one of eight slave traders listed in the Memphis city directory. “While his business practices mostly resembled those of other traders in town,” the text notes, “Forrest uniquely engaged in the buying and selling of Africans illegally smuggled into the United States, in violation of an 1808 congressional ban. Several sources confirm that in 1859 Forrest sold at least six newly arrived Africans ‘direct from the Congo’ at his yard.”

Efforts to revise the 1955 marker began in 2015, when activists called on state and local officials to amend the sign and “all other markers that do not tell the whole truth about our history,” Waters reported for the Commercial Appeal at the time. Members of members of the Memphis Lynching Sites Project held a "Prayer Service for Truth and Justice" in front of the original marker.

Forrest, who is widely believed to have served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has become the focus of renewed scrutiny in the wake of last summer’s violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which prompted cities across the country to reconsider public monuments to Confederate heroes. In December of last year, Memphis removed a statue of Forrest from its Health Sciences Park.

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