The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Friday that the Tennessee Historical Commission rejected an application made on behalf of the Memphis City Council to relocate a statute of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to a new site more appropriate to the interpretation of Civil War history, with expressed interest from Shiloh Historical Park cited. The statue currently sits in the Health Sciences Park in the city’s growing medical district. The Memphis City Council has argued that the historic statue – gifted to the city in 1905 – is incongruent with the area’s modern overlay of professional offices and the function of the park as a recreational spot for medical students and downtown residents.
The application is part of a review process set forth by the 2013 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act (revised 2016), which is why it sticks to uncontroversial facts to argue for the relocation of a controversial statue. The THPA prohibits the removal, renaming, relocation, and alteration of memorials, statues, and buildings dedicated to military heritage, including what lawmakers call “the War Between the States.” While the law cites a broad cross-section of historical resources, it’s important to acknowledge that lawmakers created the THPA to “protect,” above all, the public display of markers related to Confederate heritage and, indeed, this very statue. The THPA establishes an exemption process governed by the Tennessee Historical Commission, and the application by the Memphis City Council was its first test. While the Memphis City Council was unsuccessful, it is the Tennessee Historical Commission that failed.
Their failure must be taken in the context of much larger debates within the state – and indeed the nation – about who owns the past. Lawmakers strengthened the THPA in the wake of the Charleston shooting, as communities across Tennessee and the wider South began to reexamine the values attached to and projected by Confederate memorials. It was for our own good, state lawmakers argued, that these monuments and memorials be protected against the emotional impulses of our time, lest we lose our precious history forever and along with it the ability to learn from the past. Let me take a moment to reiterate just how flawed this argument is.
Memorials are, by their design, unyielding. They do not teach in the sense that we most commonly understand the verb, as an intervention that utilizes thinking skills to increase knowledge. They are ideas and values fixed in immovable form and they fill tangible space – and especially public space – with particular meanings. The history they reflect is not endangered. On the contrary, memorials most often signal dominant understandings about figures and events that are well-known or much beloved. For all their specificity, the knowledge and understanding about the past that they transmit is often generic. “Here is what is important to us; look upon it and reflect on your own place in the world.”
To put this another way, I doubt you have or will ever see a group of children gathered around the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest to receive its wisdom about the Civil War. In fact, the most important lesson embedded in the statue is that a group of politicians and commissioners traditionally in favor of limited government created and upheld a law designed to suppress conflicting versions of historical consciousness. That many individuals who hold such conflicting views are African American is not coincidental to the timing of the law, its intent, or its enforcement.
But, perhaps the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest does teach. To teach also means to make suffer, to an extent so great that one becomes adverse to action. “That will teach you to act out of line.” And in this, I do concede that we have been taught a lot by the Tennessee Historical Commission’s decision, but we are all worse for the lesson.