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Tennessee Commission Rejects City’s Request to Remove Monument to First Grand Wizard of KKK

Erected in 1905, the towering statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest pays tribute to the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard.

Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis' Health Sciences Park (photo by Allison Meier)
Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis’ Health Sciences Park (all photos by Allison Meier)

In the wake of the deadly mass shooting last year at a Charleston, South Carolina church, the Memphis City Council had voted unanimously to remove a monument to notorious slave trader and Confederate general from a public park. That decision has now been rejected by the Tennessee Historical Commission, as the Memphis Flyer reported, based on criteria the commission adopted shortly after the vote.

The bronze equestrian statue depicts Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was the very first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and made millions and millions of dollars off of sales of black human lives. Erected in 1905, it stands in the downtown Health Sciences Park, accompanied by the Southerner’s remains, exhumed from the local Elmwood Cemetery. (The Commission considered only the statue; permission from both family members and a court are required to move the remains.) The park was originally named Forrest Park in his honor, but City Council had voted in 2013 to remove that recognition in its greater scrub of public parks’ Confederacy associations. Forrest’s statue was just one of many Confederate monuments that became unwitting sites of #BlackLivesMatter protests: throughout the summer, vandals spraypainted it multiple times with the movement’s tagline.

#NathanBedfordForrest #statue was #vandalized Details on @wmcactionnews5 tonite! #BlackLivesMatter

A photo posted by Bo Bradley (@botog22) on

To transport the statue to “a more suitable location,” the council had to file an application, submitted this past March, for a waiver for the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act. That 2013 resolution prohibits cities or counties from relocating, removing, altering, renaming, or rededicating any war memorials — from large monuments to small plaques or nameplates — on public property. Essentially, anyone vying to do must seek permission from the Commission. According to Knoxville News Sentinel, the application had noted that the city of Savannah “had expressed interest for the relocation”; the National Civil War Trust also reportedly considered the option of planting it at Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site in Massachusetts.

The Commission denied the waiver request based on criteria adopted last October, which stated that “a historic site on the National Register of Historic Places is not subject to a waiver.”

Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis' Health Sciences Park
Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis’ Health Sciences Park

“For the Commission to have considered the matter today, it would have required rescinding that prior action,” the Commission said in a statement posted on Facebook, which also notes that the statue “is listed as a contributing element in the National Register of Historic Places nomination for Forrest Park in Memphis.”

As the Flyer points out, the Commission could have voted to change that criteria when it rejected the Council’s waiver but instead elected to leave it. Council members may submit another waiver, but it is likely a futile move unless the Commission changes its criteria.

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