Confederate monument anniversary reveals a work in progress

By Published: December 20, 2018 10:16 PM CT

Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner carefully unlocked the chain that closed a gap in the chain link fence around the gravesite of Nathan Bedford Forrest Thursday in Health Sciences Park and walked around the marble plaza that dates back more than a century.

He looked over the cracked marble surface and wondered aloud how the plaza and the rectangular base that once supported an equestrian statue of the Confederate general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard might be removed at some point in the future.

“It looks like a lot of pieces,” Turner said as he prepared to commemorate the removal of the Forrest statue, as well as other Confederate monuments in nearby Memphis Park, on the same night one year ago.

Turner, president of Memphis Greenspace, the private nonprofit that bought the two parks and the monuments within them from the city, stood with two other men between the headstones of Forrest and his wife, Mary, as evening traffic whizzed by on a rainy, cold Thursday – much like the night a year ago that drew a much larger crowd to the park.

“One year ago on this very spot, we were able to do something that was monumental for the city,” Turner told a larger group of reporters. “We were able to remove the Confederate monuments. … I was just so elated to play a role in the removal of these monuments, and here we are a year later. I think the city is better for what we were able to accomplish.”

A year later, the saga of how the Confederate monuments – an issue in this majority African-American city decades before there was an African-American majority – remains a work in progress.

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who founded the TakeEmDown 901 movement to protest and push for a unilateral removal of the statues and was elected to the commission in August, was noticeably absent from the formal observances of the anniversary. She said in a Facebook post Thursday that “a hard line was drawn by the city of Memphis’ current mayor and we were not welcome to join in any events which included him.”

“I am sure this will be denied, but of the many things you can call me, a liar is not one,” Sawyer wrote.

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City chief communications officer Ursula Madden denied earlier in the day that Mayor Jim Strickland had anything to do with who spoke at the events and that the city didn’t organize the events.

Strickland had pursued a legal route through the Tennessee Historical Commission to get the statues removed by April, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the 1968 sanitation workers strike and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When that stalled, he proposed the sale to Memphis Greenspace, and the City Council approved. The Sons of Confederate Veterans contested that move, but a Davidson County Chancery Court upheld the legality of the sale and the monuments' removal. SCV is appealing the decision.

Strickland was also critical of the protest and pressure from Sawyer, saying she wanted the city to violate the law.

Sawyer attended a Memphis Greenspace forum at the National Civil Rights Museum Thursday evening to speak about the controversy for what she said would be the final time.

“It continues to show how our voices and the voices of black women in America continue to be absent,” Sawyer said. “We all say we mean well and we are all good people. But the erasure of public movements from the words that end up in history books can’t go on silently. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to have to say any of this.”

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Turner, who was part of the evening forum on the future of the two parks, later said, “History will remember the entire struggle.”

“I think that Commissioner Sawyer upholds and supports a long tradition of activists and people in this city who have more tenure,” he added. “Think of what else we can do if we stay together.  That’s really what today means to me.”

Sawyer said she respected Turner for putting his job and his family’s income and safety on the line to take on the role in the removal of the monuments.

“We shouldn’t have to fight about who gets the recognition,” she said. “Whatever history chooses to write is what they choose to write.”

A marker denoting the history of the Sons of Confederate Veterans remains in Health Sciences Park, along with the base of the Forrest monument behind a chain-link fence watched by a private security guard Thursday evening.

All remaining monuments, markers and placards making any reference to the Confederacy were removed from Memphis Park this past August in advance of Diner en Blanc, a large invitation-only dinner held in the park.

Turner was served Thursday with the most recent lawsuit in the ongoing legal battle the city undertook. Forrest's descendants are suing the city and Memphis Greenspace for damages, alleging the remaining base in Health Sciences Park is part of the Forrests' gravesite.

Sons of Confederate Veterans president Lee Millar stood outside the chain-link fence with several others who came out of curiosity and with family heirlooms from the dedication of the statue 100 years earlier.

Tommy Pacello, president of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, an organization working to better tie together the institutions in the medical district and create mixed uses including housing, calls the park a “very critical public greenspace” that connects many different parts of the district.

He also acknowledged that some who work in the district or are students at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center have been hesitant to patronize the park even in the last year.

“That pedestal still casts a big shadow,” he said.

Jan Byrd, a Memphis Greenspace board member, remembers getting word that the statue of Forrest was about to be removed a year ago and still perhaps not realizing how big the moment would be as she prepared to go out on a cold, rainy and overcast night.

“I didn’t realize at that moment what was happening until we were in the moment,” she said. “I could smell the concrete being burned off. As I think back, what I say to other people is that night was bigger than me. It was a big deal.”


Confederate Monuments Van Turner Tami Sawyer Jan Byrd Tommy Pacello
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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