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Back room deal brings down historical monuments

NED JILTON II • Jan 23, 2018 at 1:00 PM

The city of Memphis has spit in the face of the state of Tennessee.

In a back room deal carried out in the middle of the night, Memphis sold two city parks that would have a value of millions of dollars for $1,000 each to an alleged nonprofit group.

All in an effort to bring down three Confederate statues located in those parks.

In the process, the city showed disrespect for the laws of the state, ignorance of both city and state history and, even worse, showed total disregard for the families whose relatives are buried in one of those parks.

In a fit of political correctness, over the last few years the city of Memphis has tried to cleanse its history by tearing down historical monuments. Every time their actions were stopped by historical groups, descendants of the historical figures or the state of Tennessee.

An effort in 2005 to remove one of those statues, that of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, by a Shelby County commissioner because of claims that it was offensive to blacks, was blocked by then-mayor Willie Herenton, who is black.

Efforts to remove the monuments were launched again in 2016 and early in 2017 but were stopped by a Tennessee General Assembly vote to require waivers from the Tennessee Historical Commission to move or modify monuments to historical figures.

The Historical Commission refused to grant Memphis those waivers.

There was a possibility of another vote by the commission but the city wouldn’t wait.

On Dec. 20, the Memphis City Council passed a proposal that, unknown to most, had attached to it an amendment to sell the city parks to a group known as Memphis Greenspace. Within a few hours, literally in the middle of the night, cranes were bringing down the monuments.

The monument of Forrest riding his horse, King Philip, designed by Charles Henry Niehaus of New York, had stood on that site since 1905. That’s more than 100 years for anyone who’s counting.

More importantly, the monument was the grave marker for both Forrest and his wife. In addition, the monument marked the location of several other graves, being that the park was near what was the site of a Civil War hospital.

The descendants of Forrest have continuously opposed any effort to remove the monument or disturb the finial resting place of the general and his wife.

Memphis’ actions have brought some response from state officials.

Tennessee House Majority Leader Rep. Glen Casada, R-Thompsons Station, and Republican Caucus Chairman Rep. Ryan Williams, Cookeville, in a statement called for an investigation into the city’s actions — asking questions about possible violations of the Sunshine Law and the violations of state statutes.

Mae Beavers, candidate for governor in Tennessee, wrote in response to the city’s action:

“Our history is not perfect, nor are the historical figures who helped shape our state and nation but it is wrong to destroy these public monuments suddenly and in the dark of night in order to cater to the politically motivated demands of those who want to cleanse our history. There are some individuals and groups who want to promote a divisive agenda using claims of racism and bigotry against anyone who respects history and wants to preserve it. Sadly that rhetoric, and weak-kneed politicians unwilling to stand up to them and their threats of violence if they don’t get their way, is creating a climate where hysteria seems to matter more than history.”

While there have been words from the state level there has been, as yet, no action from the state.

There has, however, been some legal action in Memphis. 

On Wednesday, Jan 10, the Forrest family, along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, filed a petition with the Tennessee Historical Commission against the city and the nonprofit group that bought the property. The petition alleges numerous violations of state law. The Sons of Confederate Veterans also filed suit in Davidson County Chancery Court to stop any further actions at the park and prevent any further damage or sale of the monuments.

This destruction of historical monuments and desecration of graves must not be allowed to stand.

It is up to all of us to demand action by contacting our state legislators and urging a vigorous response against the city of Memphis to restore the historical landmarks and stronger legislation be put in place to discourage such actions in the future.

You can find the names and contact information for your state representatives and senators at http://www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/

Ned Jilton II is page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.

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