Berlin Boyd, chairperson of the Memphis City Council, was seated at the head of a conference table at Memphis City Hall when he held up a pair of local newspaper ads published in the 1850s. “N.B. Forrest, Dealer in Slaves, has just received from North Carolina twenty-five likely young negroes, to which he desires to call the attention of purchasers,” the Memphis Daily Appeal announced. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s “Negro Depot,” located at 87 Adams St., promised customers “A.1 field hands, sound and perfect in body and mind.” Another ad boasted “fresh supplies” on the daily, inviting buyers “to examine their stock before purchasing elsewhere.”
Around Boyd, who is black, the room was packed. The hallway outside had been crowded with constituents hoping to attend the City Council meeting, to hear members discuss, yet again, what could be done about the city’s Confederate statues. In the wake of the deadly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, a long simmering national controversy over such monuments had just boiled over. As President Donald Trump gave his tacit support to white supremacists on TV, Memphians returned to a place they had been protesting for years: the large bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Earlier that morning on August 22, Tami Sawyer, founder of the initiative #TakeEmDown901, delivered a stack of petitions signed by more than 4,500 people calling for the immediate removal of the Forrest statue, along with one downtown of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Sawyer had been collecting signatures for months. But after the bloodshed in Virginia, she turned up the heat, leading a solidarity protest targeting Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. Weekend rallies at the Forrest monument led to arrests and anger at police for protecting statues over people. Council members announced they would discuss the memorials at their next meeting. Now, Sawyer sat a few feet from Boyd, listening carefully to what he and his colleagues had to say.
Yet Forrest was beloved by some in Tennessee. Just one month earlier, Boyd said, he was walking downtown when a woman handed him a flyer with an image of Forrest, telling him, “This is why you have civil rights.” The claim was grossly ahistorical — and as a black man, Boyd found it deeply insulting. “I ran to that lady, and I said, ‘How dare you?’” Boyd recalled. He told her he was chair of the City Council, “and I’m going to do everything in my power to see that statue and that monument removed.”
The problem was figuring out what, exactly, this power amounted to. Council members had already voted in 2015 to remove the Forrest statue from Health Sciences Park, previously called Forrest Park, located just east of downtown. But they were hamstrung by the Heritage Protection Act, passed in 2013 by Tennessee’s majority white, Republican-led legislature. The bill had been introduced as Memphis, a majority black city, was preparing to rename three Confederate parks — and was explicitly designed to block any further meddling with Confederate monuments in Tennessee. “I think some would question whose heritage is being protected,” city attorney Allan Wade said wryly.
Sawyer knew the answer all too well. For years, she has heard people insist that the statue represents their proud Southern heritage. The message is sometimes delivered in threats, both in person and online. But, she says, “I’m Southern. My family was raised in the South. My father’s family were slaves and sharecroppers in Alabama. My mother’s family were slaves and sharecroppers and then landowners in Fayette County, Tennessee.” When people claim such monuments represent “our heritage,” they are not including black families like hers.
Among mainstream conservatives, most know better than to defend a figure like Forrest. Exalted as a brilliant cavalryman during the Civil War — whose unlikely rise through the ranks became the stuff of legend — he was also responsible for one of its most notorious atrocities: the mass slaughter of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in West Tennessee. Lauded as a “self-made man,” Forrest made his fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader, later helping launch the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has repeatedly said he supports removing a bronze bust of Forrest displayed in the rotunda at the Tennessee state Capitol. In the wake of the Charlottesville violence, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander finally changed his position on the matter, saying he no longer thought it should remain in place.
Yet there is an enduring cult of personality around Forrest, a devotion that dates back well before his death in 1877. Those who defend Forrest insist he spent his last years advocating on behalf of black people, offering work to the formerly enslaved. Forrest famously had a religious awakening late in life, delivering a much-lauded speech calling for racial unity in 1875. Among the religious right, Forrest has become the ultimate redemption tale, his salvation eclipsing a record of racist violence. Today, the claim that he was a champion for equal rights is not just the crazy rhetoric of random flyer peddlers. In a 2015 op-ed defending monuments to Forrest, Tennessee Republican Andy Holt called him “one of the South’s first civil rights leaders.” If the statues to Confederate leaders represent a kind of revisionist history in the United States, few figures have become so wrapped in distortion and myth as Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Monuments to Forrest abound in Tennessee, from statues to street signs to an entire state park. State law still requires yearly proclamation of his birthday, July 13, as Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. Born to a poor, rural family in Chapel Hill, Tennessee, Forrest’s birth site is maintained by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The group is not known for harmonious racial rhetoric. The official caretaker of Forrest’s childhood home attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, telling The Tennessean, “I think people have had enough. Somewhere there’s going to be a line drawn, and if it’s a war that’s coming, so be it.”
Across the South, inscriptions on memorials to Forrest are similarly strident. Many stress his lack of formal education, a particular point of pride. In Rome, Georgia, a statue of Forrest stands on a pedestal in a Confederate cemetery, carved with quotes lauding his “rare tact, unlearnable from books.” In Selma, Alabama — where black residents lived in a housing project named for Forrest until the 1990s — a bust of Forrest praises him as an “Untutored Genius.”
Other states have named entire localities after Forrest. There is Forrest County, Mississippi, and Forrest City, Arkansas, both home to schools named for Forrest. And there are countless streets named after Forrest, from Valdosta, Georgia, to Moss Point, Mississippi, to Hollywood, Florida.
Among his many biographers, several have sought to make sense of Forrest’s outsized image. He was, in the grand scheme of things, a relatively minor player in the Civil War and was censured for war crimes. Yet he would swiftly become celebrated as one of the greatest generals of all time. In a deeply researched article for the Journal of Southern History in 2001, historian Court Carney describes how Forrest came to embody the pinnacle of Southern manhood; although less famous than Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee, “Forrest exemplified the outlaw rebel spirit more than the taciturn but exalted figures of Lee or Jackson ever could.”
There is little dispute about Forrest’s motivation for joining the Confederate army. “If we ain’t fightin’ to keep slavery,” he reportedly asked, “then what the hell are we fightin’ for?” Nor do Forrest’s defenders generally deny that he was the Klan’s first grand wizard. But they take umbrage at the widespread claim that he founded the KKK, emphasizing that Forrest was asked to lead the group after its formation in 1865. More importantly, they stress that he later disbanded the Klan, although there is much debate as to why.
Some argue that the dominant focus on Forrest as a Klansman obscures his more verifiable lifelong record of racial oppression. “We should think more broadly about what we are rejecting when we take Forrest from his pedestal,” writes historian Elaine Frantz Parsons, offering a monstrous array of little-known details about Forrest as a slave trader. As for his own eventual rejection of racism, such a legacy might be more credible if any of the monuments were built to celebrate his supposed conversion. Instead, like most Confederate memorials, they mark moments of backlash against racial advancement — and have remained touchstones for white nationalists. Yet defenders of Forrest tend to want it both ways: glorifying his militant image while insisting he disavowed it all in the end.
The Nashville Scene’s Cari Wade Gervin recently explored the history of the bronze Forrest bust that sits in the Tennessee state Capitol. First proposed in the wake of the civil rights movement, it was not installed until 1978. Even as protesters called the bust “an insult to all blacks,” she writes, The Tennessean marked the occasion with a “laudatory and sympathetic accounting of Forrest’s years as a general” that entirely erased any history of racist violence. In 1980, the bust “became the site for literal Klan members, in full regalia, to give a press conference saying that they were training SWAT teams in preparation for race wars.”
Even more notorious than the memorial in the Capitol is a bizarre equestrian statue that towers on private land just south of Nashville, along I-65. A weirdly stout, wild-eyed Forrest charges forth on a golden horse, a sword in one hand and pistol in the other, surrounded by Confederate flags. The garish 25-foot sculpture, designed by a lawyer once hired to defend Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin, James Earl Ray, sparked anger when it went up in 1998. Some were offended by the aggressive Confederate imagery, others by the statue’s unforgivable hideousness. Especially controversial was the move by the Department of Transportation to clear trees and brush from the road to make the statue visible to passing motorists. In recent years the same DOT has declined to take steps to conceal the display, while the property owner still deflects charges of racism. As he dubiously told The Tennessean in 2015, the statue attracts tourists and Civil War scholars, to the benefit of local hotels and restaurants — “and how many blacks work in those industries?”
For all the ways Forrest inspires alternative facts, nowhere is the gap between myth and reality more jarring than in Memphis. In a city whose original town squares — Exchange, Market, Court, and Auction — carry the stain of slavery, Downtown Memphis is brimming with historical markers; many buildings boast plaques noting their inclusion in the Register of Historic Places. Yet Forrest’s years as a slave trader are conspicuously absent. There is no sign to hint where Forrest’s “Negro Depot” once stood. The address of the famed slave mart at 87 Adams no longer exists.
Just down the street, however, one of the Tennessee Historical Commission’s signature signs marks Forrest’s Early Home. “Following marriage in 1845, he came to Memphis, where his business enterprises made him wealthy,” it reads, with no further specifics. A few blocks from there, in what used to be Confederate Park, a bronze shield is engraved with highlights from Forrest’s “grand strategic raid” on Memphis in 1864. But there is no mention of the massacre at Fort Pillow that same year.
There is no question that Union troops had already surrendered when Confederate soldiers attacked them at Fort Pillow. One man described how “after we had given up the fort entirely, the guns thrown away and the firing on our part stopped, they still kept up their murderous fire, more especially on the colored troops.” There were descriptions of torture and sadism. “They nailed some black sergeants to the logs and set the logs on fire,” one witness testified. “Did they kill them before they burned them?” he was asked. “ No, sir, they nailed them to the logs; drove the nails right through their hands.”
The hundreds of soldiers killed at Fort Pillow were predominantly former slaves fighting for the Union. One recalled Forrest at the scene, telling “some negro men there that he knew them; that they had been in his nigger yard in Memphis.” Forrest spent the rest of his life denying fault for massacre. In an indignant letter to the New York Times in 1867, he lambasted the “outrageous assaults upon my character” by one published account. But Southern newspapers would protect his reputation. While some nicknamed him “Forrest the butcher,” his image as a military hero remained entrenched.
In his article, Carney offers an explanation for Forrest’s hagiographic treatment in the local press. Chagrined by their city’s early capitulation during the Civil War, white Memphians “desperately needed a hero and therefore crafted a distorted depiction of Forrest’s role in the war,” he writes. Later, as the Lost Cause narrative spread through the South — and as lynchings and Jim Crow laws kept white supremacy firmly in place — Forrest evolved into what another historian called a “spiritual comforter.”
The need for such a hero became fully expressed in the enormous equestrian statue of Forrest, installed in 1905, almost 30 years after his death. Unlike the cheap, mass-produced Confederate monuments that proliferated in the early 1900s, the Memphis memorial was carefully commissioned, painstakingly designed by a New York sculptor, and cast in bronze in Paris. Costing nearly $33,000 to create, the almost 950-pound statue’s journey to Memphis became an absurd undertaking. It was so large it did not fit under bridges; at one point a railroad bridge between Birmingham and Atlanta had to be reconstructed to accommodate it.
Plans for the statue began in the late 1800s, with local elites raising money under the banner of the Forrest Monument Association. Newspapers closely tracked the developments; when a ceremony marked the laying of a cornerstone in 1901, the Commercial Appeal ran the speech of a former cavalry commander who praised everything from Forrest’s “well-stocked plantations” to his “broad shoulders, full chest, and symmetrical muscular limits.” In advance of the official unveiling in 1905, train tickets to Memphis were sold at a discount; the local News-Scimitar hailed the tribute to “one of the greatest men Tennessee has ever produced,” while dismissing his censure for the Fort Pillow massacre as “poison-tipped darts … blunt and pointless.”
The unveiling of the statue in Memphis came with a parade, poetry, and music. A slew of featured speakers spoke of unity, anchored in white supremacy. “It will be the verdict of history for all time that the soldiers of the South and the soldiers of the North both fought for what they believed was right,” a former Union soldier said, reflecting on the 40 years since the war. “They were kindred blood and they fought with the same Anglo-Saxon valor; there was bravery and sacrifice beyond comparison on both sides.”Long before Donald Trump was blaming “many sides” for the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Tennessee Republicans were devising ways to protect Confederate icons. As the Memphis City Council prepared in 2013 to rename three parks — Confederate Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and Forrest Park — state Rep. Steve McDaniel sponsored the Heritage Protection Act. “If we begin to remove those pieces of history across this state,” he warned, “then one doesn’t get an accurate view of our history.”
McDaniel was too late to stop the renaming of the parks in Memphis. But the law stalled further action in its tracks. The Heritage Protection Act, which has since been amended multiple times, holds that “no statue, monument, memorial, nameplate, plaque, historic flag display, school, street, bridge, building, park, preserve, or reserve which has been erected for, or named or dedicated in honor of, any historical military figure, historical military event, military organization, or military unit, and is located on public property, may be renamed or rededicated.”
On April 1, 2013, Gov. Haslam signed the bill into law. Soon afterward, a press release from the N. B. Forrest Camp 215 of Memphis began to make the rounds on Confederate-themed email lists. It hailed the Heritage Protection Act as a model for other states, while boasting that its “basic text” had been written by the group’s own Lee Millar, a leading Sons of Confederate Veterans member based in Memphis.
Millar, a former Shelby County sheriff’s deputy, is among Forrest’s most active defenders. He was the reunion chairperson for an SCV gathering in Memphis this past July, where a commemorative poster featured the Forrest statue in its original bronze glory. In 2015, after nationwide calls to remove Confederate icons following Dylann Roof’s massacre of black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, Millar held a rally at the statue to honor Forrest’s birthday. More than 500 attendees “carried rebel flags and wore T-shirts bearing slogans like Confederate Lives Matter,” according to the New York Times.
Over email, Millar confirmed that he was “one of the authors” of the Heritage Protection Act. But he said the idea had been in the works for years. “I had been refining this for several months when I and others felt it was time to introduce to the Tenn Legislature,” he wrote. “The timing had nothing to do with the carnival actions of the city council of Memphis.” McDaniel demurred. “I had input from a lot of people,” he said over the phone. “Lee has offered suggestions from time to time on things he thought might improve it,” but “he didn’t write the bill. … I don’t know if I used any of his stuff or not.”
Nevertheless, the law is certainly obstructionist by design. The only way to get around its provisions is to seek a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission, whose 29 members are primarily gubernatorial appointments. The Memphis City Council petitioned for a waiver to remove the Forrest statue in March 2016, but was rejected. At the August 22 meeting in Memphis, city attorney Wade was blunt. “It is probably easier to have someone executed by lethal injection in Tennessee than to get a waiver,” he said. (Executions have been stalled in the state since 2009.)
Wade laid out the byzantine process. First, a party seeking a waiver must “identify by name and address” any groups or individuals who might wish to be notified about the petition. “In such a controversial item as this one, that would virtually encompass all of Memphis,” Wade said. A public notice of the petition must then be published in a newspaper with general circulation in Shelby County, as well as one in Davidson County. After a 60-day waiting period, commission members will meet to decide whether additional notices must be made. Assuming the list of interested parties is approved — but no earlier than 180 days after the petition is filed — the commission then will meet to determine whether there is “clear and convincing evidence” that a monument should be removed. “Then, assuming that you’ve made that showing,” the decision must be approved by a two-thirds vote. “There are several members of the commission that are members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” Wade pointed out, saying they are unlikely to recuse themselves.
Finally, if a petition manages to survive this process, the removal would still have to wait 120 calendar days from when its announcement was made on the commission’s website. Altogether, if the City Council wants to get a waiver, “it’s gonna take at least a year,” Wade said.
McDaniel denies that the rules were deliberately crafted to be onerous. “I think it’s a very good process,” he said, stressing the openness and opportunity for the public to be involved. “I saw in one state where they just went in the dark of the night and removed [monuments],” he said. “There was no public input, no process. They just took ’em down.”
The need for public participation certainly sounds reasonable in theory. But in reality, the fight over Forrest has inspired the opposite of transparency in Nashville. This past spring the Associated Press published a report — embarrassingly titled “Tennessee lawmakers unwittingly vote to honor Klan leader” — revealing that assembly members had been duped into voting for a resolution praising Forrest, just days after they had rejected a similar one. The sponsor of the resolution, House Republican Mike Sparks, “pulled a fast one,” one black colleague fumed, tucking the previously rejected language into a new item honoring a Louisiana preacher named Shane Kastler, author of a 2010 book titled “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption.” The resolution, passed alongside other ostensibly noncontroversial measures, went undiscussed on the House floor before the 94-0 vote. While it acknowledged that Forrest was “reviled” by some, it invoked the popular mythology around the Confederate icon. “A wizard of the saddle, he purportedly had twenty-nine horses shot out from underneath him during the Civil War,” it read.
In response to anger from the Black Caucus, Kastler explained that the resolution was meant to honor a man who had renounced his racism and found God. While he sympathized with those who felt “tricked,” Kastler said it was “even more disturbing” that lawmakers had been misled into thinking the resolution honored white supremacy. He did not bother to explain why, if Sparks’s intentions were so noble, the move had been carried out in such an underhanded way.
For his own part, Sparks was unrepentant. “I have something on my side that they don’t have on their side,” he told the AP. “I’ve got truth.”
As the Memphis City Council meeting came to a close on August 22, members decided they would formally discuss their options at their next meeting. The following week, Gov. Haslam sent a letter to the Tennessee Historical Commission, urging it to make a decision on the pending waiver application. A refusal to act would “only prolong the issue and result in criticism of both the established process and the Commission itself,” he wrote, adding that the process should work just fine, as long as everyone acted in a timely manner.
On September 1, the State Capitol Commission rejected a separate push to take down the bust of Forrest in Nashville, and move it from the Capitol to the state museum. One member found the evidence provided about Forrest was “a little contradictory. There’s information that redeems him as an outstanding member of society, post-war, where he worked in support of the black community,” she said.
On the evening after the meeting in Memphis, a city police vehicle stood guard at the Forrest statue. Flowers had been placed at its base, where Forrest and his wife are buried. A handful of passersby took pictures. In person, the statue is impressive but diminished by context. Today, Forrest defiantly faces an Office Depot across the street.
Downtown, another police car sat parked by the statue of Jefferson Davis in what was once Confederate Park, overlooking the Mississippi River. Just south of the city lies President’s Island, home to Forrest’s final moneymaking scheme, in 1875. The venture has long been overshadowed by Forrest’s famed speech for racial unity, delivered at a Fourth of July picnic that same year. Invited by a black civic organization, his remarks were brief and self-serving. He told the black audience that he had “been misunderstood by your race,” disputed the “many things” wrongly said about him, and bemoaned that Southerners had been so “slandered and maligned.” He promised to “elevate you to take positions in law officers, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.”
The Memphis Daily Appeal ran the speech in full. But more revealing was an item it ran just three days later, announcing a new business deal between Forrest and local officials. With the South still reeling from war, the former slave dealer had found an emerging industry to continue profiting from black labor: convict leasing.
Forrest had recently submitted a bid to take custody of Shelby County jail’s population for a term of five years, which he would take to his farm on President’s Island. “For all able-bodied men and women that are suitable for agricultural purposes, I agree to pay at the rate of ten cents per day for each day said convict may work,” he wrote. Forrest offered to feed, clothe, and house them and to “furnish suitable guards.” The whole operation would be under his “exclusive control.”
The local press praised the idea. “The city is full of vagrants, vagabonds and sneak thieves, principally negros of both sexes,” one article read. The “work-house” would “rid the city of this class of people. … The depraved and wicked population will either have to leave the city or be forced to work on President’s Island.”
Forrest died in 1877, before the end of the contract, but not before reports of abuse would emerge. In May 1876, members of a grand jury visited President’s Island, where Forrest raised corn, cotton, and other crops through the labor of 60 black men, 48 black women, 35 white men, and four white women. The Public Ledger described Forrest as the quintessential Southern planter, retaining “a magnetism in his superb presence” that “impels obedience and makes everything move like clockwork.” Although they found one convict in shackles, that man had “made an attempt to escape one night by sawing at a window bar.” The visitors were impressed with the convict lease system, which turned misdemeanors into a source of revenue. In its report, the grand jury noted approvingly that the grounds were well-policed.
“General Forrest gives his personal attention to all the details,” they wrote, “and has perfected an organization that is a credit to the county and a public benefit.”
Convict leasing would eventually be abolished in Tennessee. But prison labor would live on. Today, Forrest’s legacy survives in ways seen and unseen. When the state removed the brush along Nashville’s I-65 to clear the view for Forrest’s grotesque equestrian statue in 1997, it was done by the hands of prisoners.