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Movement to rename Forrest Park re-sparks proverbial fire

Published: Friday, February 15, 2013

Updated: Friday, February 15, 2013 00:02

Since its creation in 1904, Forrest Park has been at the center of many vivid discussions, several of which have revolved around the nature of the man for whom it is named.

On Feb. 5, the Memphis City Council’s decision to temporarily rename the controversial monument as Health Sciences Park had, not for the first time, rekindled a debate surrounding two separate interpretations and intentions of Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

“One interpretation has painted Forrest as a decorated Civil War hero who died defending the rights of all people of the Confederacy, as did the numerous memorials erected all across the South around the same time Forrest Park was created,” said Aram Goudsouzian, history professor and director of the Marcus W. Orr Center for the Humanities.

Goudsouzian added that these memorials also served as symbols of celebrated Confederate officers, soldiers and their wives and daughters, all of whom were represented as courageous and virtuous people who battled for a tragic, noble “lost cause.”
“However, the other interpretation focuses on the more cognizant of the flaws in such an approach — particularly because it is tied to a defense of white supremacy, the dominant racial ideology of the era,” he said.

Goudsouzian claimed he had no intention of getting involved in any controversy until Lee Millar, former chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commision and leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans made the claim that “historians” would be “up in arms over the renaming of Forrest Park.”
“I, and just about every historian that I know, sees the uncritical celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest as a problem,” he said. “He was a slave trader. During the Civil War, he was the commanding officer during the Fort Pillow Massacre, when Confederate soldiers slaughtered surrendering black Union troops in cold blood.”
After the Civil War, Forrest, an early member of the KKK, was sworn in as the organization’s first Grand Wizard in 1867 at its first “konvention” in Nashville, Tenn. Two years later, he dissolved the KKK after learning that it had become too perverse in its aims, methods and activities.

In an attempt to demonstrate that his views no longer mirrored those of the Klan, he accepted a bouquet of flowers as a token of reconciliation from a black woman at the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, an organization dedicated to black Southerners who were advocating for racial reconciliation at the time.

Nancy Baker, manager of the Memphis Landmarks Commission, said as far as the National Register of Historic Places is concerned, Forrest Park will always remain Forrest Park.

“General Forrest is a part of our collective history, and one cannot change the past,” she said. “Renaming Forrest Park will not alter its historical significance in any way.”
Goudsouzian echoed Baker’s philosophy, saying that “the renaming of the park is not renaming history.”
“Nathan Bedford Forrest is a complicated and important figure in our nation’s history who deserves objective treatment, just like any other figure from history,” he said.

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