Board OKs dropping an ‘R’ in Forrest Avenue

By Published: April 14, 2019 7:19 AM CT

The planning board sided with Forrest Avenue residents who don't want to honor Confederate general, slave trader and first Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest each time they write a return address on an envelope.

The Land Use Control Board on Thursday morning voted 8-1 to change the street's spelling back to "Forest Avenue," which likely honors the woods of nearby Overton Park.

"Forest" is the way the street was first spelled on the subdivision plats and city directories in the first decade of the 1900s, research by the Office of Planning & Development staff shows. "Forrest" started appearing on plats and directories a few years later.

"Frankly, for me it was embarrassing when I would have to spell the name of the street, especially when I was speaking to an African-American," Shannon Dixon said after the vote. She's one of the Forrest Avenue residents who applied for the change in spelling.

"... I'm just super-happy that we're back to the original name."

The planning board's vote can be appealed to the Memphis City Council.

The one board member opposed to the name change was Margaret Pritchard. She cited the length of time — 107 years — the street has consistently been spelled "Forrest," the inconvenience to the street's residents, what she described as the Orwellian manner of altering of history.

"This is really a matter of PC," Pritchard said, referring to political correctness.

The planning board's staff had recommended the name change, but its in-depth report steered clear of the social undertones behind the citizens' request for the change.

The case is a more nuanced version of the Confederate statues controversies that have swept across the South, including in Memphis where the Forrest and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis statues were removed in December 2017.

The 80-plus page staff report by the Office of Planning & Development indicates that the city planners sought to learn if the street’s name was originally intended, more than 100 years ago, to refer to Forrest the man, the forest in Overton Park to where the street connects, or perhaps to something or someone else.

“Based on historical Polk city directories, ‘Forest’ was used on street signs solely in the 1903-1907 directories, both 'Forrest' and 'Forest' Avenues were used in the 1908-1912 directories, and starting in the 1913 directory Forrest was solely used,” the staff report states.

“There was no historical evidence located during this review that explicitly details why either spelling was used at any given time,” the report states.

The review of the old subdivision plats shows the street was consistently called “Forrest” starting in 1912. Both “Forest” and “Forrest” appeared on plats before 1912.

About 350 parcels, mostly single-family homes, will be affected by changing the street name, and an estimated 30 street signs will have to be replaced from Ayers on the west to Berclair Road on the east.

Normally, applicants requesting such a name change would be required to pay the costs of removing the old signs and making and posting the new signs. However, City Engineer Manny Belen wrote in an email to Planning Director Josh Whitehead that the city can absorb the effort to implement work associated with this application.

The Office of Planning and Development received 19 letters in support of changing the name, plus a petition with more than 100 names on it. Four opposition letters were submitted.

The name “Forest” is “more fitting with some of the naming conventions of the neighborhood as we are in proximity of Overton Park (e.g. Peach, Autumn, Evergreen, Hawthorne),” wrote Burton Bridges, who lives nearby on North McLean. “Moreover, I don’t see the need to have this street name also exist as a veiled reference and homage to Nathan B. Forrest. We must rise above honoring oppressors.”

Name-change supporter Christopher Wetzel offered an unconventional idea.

“I would be willing to simply put a red slash next to one of the 'r’s so that we don’t whitewash our racist history by replacing street signs and forgetting how we honored a horrible man,” Wetzel wrote. “Plus, it would start conversations about race…”

Tom Bailey: Forrest Avenue residents: Drop the 'R' and the honor

Of course the street was renamed to honor Forrest, Donna L. Palmer wrote. “I prefer to honor the old forest of Overton Park as its original intention. ... I'd be honored to live on Forest Ave.!!," she wrote.

None of the four who opposed changing the name defended the Confederate officer.

Aaron Street opposes the name change for sentimental reasons: His family has a long history with Forrest Avenue. “I was brought home from the hospital to Forrest, my dad died in our house on Forrest and I have multiple family members who were wed on Forrest,” Street wrote.

Candis Lee cited the use of public money to change the signs. “I would much rather see this money go to something that will impact the lives of Memphians like pay raises for fire, police, and sanitation personnel,” she wrote.

Philip Ashford wrote that any reverence for Nathan Bedford Forrest is, “appropriately destined for the ash heap of history.”

But unlike at Confederate statues, nobody has ever gathered on Forrest Avenue to admire Forrest, or rally for white supremacy or to restore the Confederacy, he indicated.

“But changing the name is a headache for everyone who lives there,” Ashford wrote. “… Renaming streets is a dangerous source of confusion for emergency responders… There are also several other streets in Memphis and Shelby County that contain some variant of ‘Forest’ in their names. It also causes confusion for the Postal Service and other delivery carriers. It can also create problems for property records, potentially putting shade on land titles. And then there is just the headache of correcting personal information and subscription information.”

Ashford offered an unconventional solution of his own: City council should find some other, worthy person named “Forrest” for whom to name the street. Wikipedia lists about 40 notable people named “Forrest,” he said.


neighborhoods Nathan Bedford Forrest Planning And Development
Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey covers business news for The Daily Memphian. A Tupelo, Mississippi, native, he graduated from Mississippi State University. He's worked in journalism for 40 years and has lived in Midtown for 36 years.

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