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Tennessee: We rob graves for tourism

Ned Jilton • Apr 23, 2018 at 3:13 PM

I’ve spent a lot of time in this column describing attacks on history and monuments. But now the Tennessee legislature has dug down to a new low when it comes to the desecration of our history.

I thought it was bad when Memphis took the monument off the grave of Nathan Bedford Forrest, but now the state legislature has voted in favor of removing not only the monument but the bodies from the graves of President James K. Polk and his wife.

And the reason the state has decided to move the tomb? Some claim it is to better honor the president, but the real truth, in my opinion, is money and tourism.

THE BACKSTORY

Polk died in Nashville on June 15, 1849, just three months after leaving office.

Because he died of cholera, Nashville law required he be buried within 24 hours of his death, so he was temporarily interred in Nashville City Cemetery. A year later, in accordance with his will, he was exhumed and reburied at his home, Polk Place. He was almost in the shadow of the State Capitol Building, where he served as Tennessee’s ninth governor.

Polk’s wife, Sarah, lived on at Polk Place until she joined her husband in death 42 years later. The two were buried side by side as Polk intended, but there was a problem. Polk had put his faith and trust in the Tennessee legislature, and the legislature failed him.

In his will, Polk had stated that Tennessee would take over Polk Place and maintain it along with the couple’s tomb. Much in the same manner as the state has done with Andrew Jackson’s home and burial site, the Hermitage.

However, the legislature never acted. So, after Sarah’s death, members of the Polk family challenged the will in court and had it invalidated, taking possession of Polk Place and selling it.

Again, President Polk would have to be exhumed, along with his wife this time, and moved to a new location.

After careful consideration, the legislature designated a new site on the grounds of the Capitol Building, roughly four-tenths of a mile from Polk Place, and had a tomb designed by the capitol architects. The Polks were interred there in 1893, and that’s where they are now. But they might not be there much longer.

A STRUGGLING HISTORIC SITE

Down the road from Nashville in Columbia is a historic site called Polk House.

Located there is Polk’s father’s home, his sister’s home and the church President Polk would attend when visiting with, and staying at, his father’s residence.

It’s a nice site. The church has been restored into a museum and is expecting to receive the bones of a Mexican-American War soldier recently recovered and returned to the United States.

Despite these efforts, the site is struggling. In order to get more bodies through the door, the site needs more than bones. The site needs two bodies from Nashville — President and Mrs. Polk.

“The folks struggle every, every year to raise money at the Polk Ball. It’s not enough money to keep the house in any type of shape,” said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, one of the supporters of the legislation to move Polk’s body. “It’s probably one of the largest tourism opportunities for Maury County because people come to the house and they can’t see him (President Polk) because he’s buried here (in Nashville). He is the only president of the United States that is buried at a State Capitol. They have the sister’s home right next door, and they want to bury him right there (Polk Home) in the courtyard.”

SETTING A BAD PRECEDENT

I have several concerns about this action by the legislature.

By moving President Polk’s tomb to Polk Home in Columbia, it should draw more paying customers through the doors of the houses and museum. But if the site goes broke, won’t the state be obligated to financially support the place because of the tomb?

This action will also cost the state the moral high ground in its battle with the city of Memphis over the removal of monuments there. After all, how can the state claim what Memphis did was wrong in light of the state going one step further and moving bodies along with a monument from graves?

Third, the state’s action sets a bad precedent.

For example, the body of John Sevier, Tennessee’s first governor and one of the leaders of the Overmountain Men, is buried on a courthouse lawn in Knoxville. I feel this place does not pay honor to the man and fails to educate people about his role in our history.

If you can move President Polk, why not move Gov./ Col Sevier?

I urge our local state legislators to introduce a bill to move Sevier from Knoxville to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Site in Carter County, where Sevier and the Overmountain men gathered before heading to the Revolutionary War battle of Kings Mountain.

At Sycamore Shoals, far more people will see Sevier’s grave, and the park rangers, interns and guides will be there to give people a better understanding of the man’s place in history.

I do think moving President Polk’s body could give rise to a new state tourism slogan. Tennessee: We rob graves for tourism.

Catchy?

TAKE ACTION TO STOP THE MOVE

However, the moving of President Polk’s and his wife’s graves is not a done deal. With the approval of the legislature, the proposed relocation now moves to the Tennessee Historical Commission for approval.

If you want to see the move of Polk’s tomb stopped, contact Patrick McIntyre, executive director, Tennessee Historical Commission at Patrick.Mcintyre@tn.gov.

Ned Jilton II is a 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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