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Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is contributing editor and columnist for The Daily Memphian, the political analyst for WMC-TV, and the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His latest books are “Trump: The First Two Years” and “The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018.”

Nelson: Remembering MLK50 on the Eve of MLK51

By Published: March 28, 2019 4:00 AM CT

Most of the time, progress on just about anything is frustratingly incremental – two steps forward and (if we’re lucky) only 1.9 steps back.

But every once in a while you can point to something that is wrong one day and becomes right the next.  

Such a thing happened in Memphis one year ago, on April 4, 2018, which the city commemorated as MLK50, the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s worth remembering as we approach MLK51.

The “wrong” part of the story began in 1955, during the peak of the massive resistance movement that arose in much of the white South in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ordered the end of legally mandated racial segregation in public schools.

The “right” part began to take shape in 2016 when Timothy Huebner, a native Southerner who teaches history at Rhodes College, began studying the Downtown city block on which his church, Calvary Episcopal, sits. The block is bounded east to west by Second and Third (now B.B. King Avenue) and north to south by Adams and Jefferson. The church is the oldest public building in continuous use in Memphis, dating to 1843.

Here’s an upfront confession: Tim is one of my closest friends and Calvary is my family’s church as well as his. Keep reading and it will be easy to tell why I’m so proud of both connections.

As the author of “Liberty and Union: The Civil War and American Constitutionalism,” a much-celebrated history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Huebner already knew about the 1955 historical marker that stands near the corner of Adams and Third. 

Headlined “Forrest’s Early Home,” the marker blandly notes that “following marriage in 1845, he came to Memphis where his business enterprises made him wealthy.” Not a word about what – or where – Nathan Bedford Forrest’s most lucrative business was.

The marker was erected by the Tennessee Historical Commission near the midpoint of an almost century-long celebration of Forrest in Memphis. 

In 1905 Confederate veterans placed the now-removed equestrian statue in Forrest Park, along with the reburied bodies (still there) of Forrest and his wife, the former Mary Ann Montgomery. 

Eighty-five years later Shelby Foote, the fabled Memphis author and de facto star of Ken Burns’ justly celebrated PBS series “The Civil War,” said that Forrest’s military prowess made him one of the “two authentic geniuses” produced by the war. Abraham Lincoln was the other.

As Huebner dug deeply into the history of the corner where the marker stands as part of his research for the church, he learned from old city directories that Forrest not only lived at 85 Adams but that his main “business enterprise” was a slave market at 87 Adams, right next door. He opened the market in 1854 and sold it to another slave trader in 1860.

Newspaper advertisements for “FORREST & MAPLES, SLAVE DEALERS, 87 Adams Street, Between Second and Third” provided Huebner with additional evidence. One ad promised “the best selected assortment of FIELD HANDS, HOUSE SERVANTS & MECHANICS at their Negro Mart,” with “fresh supplies of Likely Young Negroes ... daily arriving from Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri.”

With its prime location on the Mississippi River and at the western terminus of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, Memphis offered a perfect location for human traffickers coming from the North, South and East to meet. Plantation agriculture, which was booming in Delta locations on both sides of the river, had a bottomless need for enslaved labor.

The same demand that made Memphis the center of the world cotton market made it a regional hub for slave trading. Forrest & Maples was one of at least 10 firms in the city that profited by selling black human beings to white human beings.

In 2017 Huebner decided to bring the students in his class on “The Historian’s Craft” into his research. As a course on basic historical methods that history majors at Rhodes are required to take, it “is not especially adored by students or faculty,” he wryly observes.

That was about to change.

Huebner told the 15-member class that their purpose for the semester was to do the research needed to write the text for a new historical marker at the site of Forrest’s slave mart – not to replace the 1955 marker, which is still there, but to tell the rest of the story. 

The students tracked down property and business records, bills of sale, census data, newspaper accounts, and the few surviving memoirs and interviews with African-Americans who’d been sold in Memphis. 

By semester’s end Huebner and the class had drafted the text for a new marker that, as Huebner wrote in an article for The American Historian, “was likely to reach a popular audience of passersby on the downtown sidewalk.”

The wording of the two-sided marker was reviewed by a local advisory board composed of “experts on African American history and the slave trade.” It was approved and paid for (less than $3,000) by the National Park Service. 

The new marker’s title is “Forrest and the Memphis Slave Trade.” The text includes a physical description of the “slave yard” and notes that, in contrast to the city’s other slave traders, Forrest added insult to injury by selling people recently brought from Africa in violation of a law passed by Congress in 1808.

The marker also features an account by Horatio Eden, who was sold from Forrest’s yard as a child. “When an auction was held or buyers came,” Eden recalled, “we were brought out and paraded two or three times 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.”

The marker was dedicated last April 4 after a moving “Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation” at Calvary. Sarah Eiland, one of Huebner’s students, was among the speakers. Along with two other members of the class and a Calvary parishioner, she had continued their research after the semester ended. 

From bills of sale in the Shelby County Archives, they found the names and ages of 72 of the many hundreds of people whom Forrest sold. Eiland and others took turns reading these names at the packed service. 

Spontaneously, members of the congregation rose to their feet in silent tribute to the dead.

“It happened because of a genuine sense among the people there that they needed to stand out of respect for the memory of those names of people who had been sold on that site,” Huebner said.

At that moment, with special intensity, I felt like my colleague at The Daily Memphian, Dan Conaway. 

I’m a Memphian, and it thrills me when our city takes a step forward, however small, however incomplete – and no steps back.

<strong>Michael Nelson</strong>

Michael Nelson

Topics

Calvary Episcopal Church Nathan Bedford Forrest

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