Last night, after finding a way around a state law preventing the removal of monuments from public land, the city of Memphis took down statues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced the news last night on Twitter, explaining the process by which the two parks containing the monuments — Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park — had been sold to a private entity, thereby exempting them from the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, which “prohibits the removal, relocation, or renaming of a memorial that is, or is located on, public property.”

“It’s important to know why we’re here: The Forrest statue was placed in 1904, as Jim Crow segregation laws were enacted. The Davis statue was placed in 1964, as the Civil Rights Movement changed our country,” Strickland wrote in remarks posted on Facebook. “The statues no longer represent who we are as a modern, diverse city with momentum. As I told the Tennessee Historical Commission in October, our community wants to reserve places of reverence for those we honor.”

Yesterday, after finalizing the sale of the two parks for $1,000 each to Memphis Greenspace, Inc., a nonprofit established in October, crews moved into place with cranes and removed the statue of Forrest and then the statue of Davis. Each park was surrounded by police during the removals, and peaceful crowds gathered to watch. Many people cheered as the two statues were hoisted from their pedestals.

“This is a huge step towards healing the deep racial wounds that have tried to define Memphis’s future,” State Representative Raumesh Akbari wrote on Twitter from the scene in Health Sciences Park, as the statue of Forrest was being removed. “As a city, our greatest victories happen when we are willing to work together for a brighter Memphis.”

In 2015, the Memphis City Council voted unanimously to remove the Forrest monument, but earlier this year the Tennessee Historical Commission denied the city’s application for a waiver from the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, setting in motion the plan to find alternative ways to remove the statue.

“I was committed to remove the statues in a lawful way,” Strickland said. “From the beginning, we have followed state law — and tonight’s action is no different. The Historical Commission was not the only legal avenue.”

The timing of the removals is particularly auspicious, as Memphis prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April.

“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, a Democrat representing Memphis, said in a statement. “Hopefully, the Forrests will be returned to their rightful and preferred burial spot — Elmwood Cemetery.” The remains of Forrest and his wife Mary A. Forrest were relocated from historic Elmwood Cemetery, the oldest in Memphis, and relocated to Health Sciences Park (formerly Forrest Park) in 1904. The bronze monument that was removed from the park last night, by sculptor Charles Henry Niehaus, was dedicated in May 1905.

The monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1906 (photo by Detroit Publishing Co., courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

The monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest in 1906 (photo by Detroit Publishing Co., courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

Forrest, who was born in 1821 in the town of Chapel Hill in central Tennessee, rose quickly in the Confederate Army’s ranks during the US Civil War, eventually becoming a general. He was serving in this capacity when, at the Battle of Fort Pillow in Henning, Tennessee, his men massacred nearly 300 black Union soldiers who had already surrendered. After the war, Forrest settled in Memphis, where he died in 1877. He became a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866 or 1867, and may have even served as the first “grand wizard” of the domestic terrorist organization.

The two Memphis monuments are the latest statues to be removed in a nationwide movement to reckon with public symbols of racism, hate, and white supremacy. Some cities have done similarly, including Baltimore and New Orleans, while others, including New York City, have yet to act on the issue. Most notoriously, a neo-Nazi rally spurred by calls to remove a monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent and deadly in August.

“In the days after the August events in Charlottesville, we saw an avalanche of support come together behind our efforts,” Strickland said. “So it’s important that we not forget the sea change that made today a reality: Republicans and Democrats, a unanimous city and county government, [Governor Bill] Haslam, scores of diverse members of the clergy, prominent members of the business community, and citizen demonstrators came together to support the same cause.”

The Latest

Avatar photo

Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...