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Don’t put Ida B. Wells’ name in that park mess

  • Written by Kelvin Cowans

ForrestPark-400Being a life long Memphian, I have passed Forrest Park and the huge statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest on Union Avenue hundreds of times without stopping. Why would I stop?

Since when has the history of a man riding on a horse ever meant anything good for an African American?

Neither was I prompted to entertain the revelation of the horse's rider, and this despite the local news media's recent swarm to the statue.

The other day I was caught mid-channel flipping as I came across a direct descendant of Mr. Forrest speaking of how he was upset that someone had moved the statue's marker from the park. Still, nothing registered. I flipped on.

Kelvin Cowans-160Later, I learned that City Councilman Myron Lowery had proposed that we place a marker of Ida B. Wells in this same park to calm tensions related to the presence of the Forrest statue. And there my mind went, registering an alert that sounded like a large commercial vehicle when it's in reverse – beep, beep, beep.

Yeah, let's go back because I knew of Ida. B. Wells; a terror with her pencil for racial injustice to say the least. So after much research I found out that – among other titles – Nathan Bedford Forrest was The Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Now I am sure that Mr. Lowery has to be privy to the background of both parties mentioned. How else could he make the suggestion?

Of course, the proposal makes no sense. That bothers me, as it seems to me that many of our elected officials – for the most part – don't directly reflect how we really are.

Think about it. Divorce, removing membership from a church, a new car, shady family members, lazy lawn care specialist, beauticians that talk too much, barbers that cut too slow, or deacons that pray too long – Memphians will remove or replace you.

So why is right, good or not entertaining wrong so hard for our leaders to do once they get behind the desk. I'm not even thinking about why the marker was moved, who cares? I'm looking at the root of the issue and that is this: What public officials allowed the park and statue to exist in the first place. It is a beaming symbol of hate. Yet it passed the sniff test amongst "city leaders."

Let's peep in on Mr. Forrest's life on April 12, 1864. Here's what digging unearthed:

General Forrest led his Confederate forces in the attack and capture of Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Henning, Tenn. Over 300 African American Union Troops were killed in the battle. A controversy arose about whether Forrest conducted or condoned a massacre of African Americans who had surrendered there. Many Southern Newspapers (Remember we're talking 1864 Southern newspapers) stated that, "General Forrest BEGGED them to surrender but they did not."

Other sources say those statements were contradicted by Union survivors. In one instance, a contraction is attributed to a Confederate soldier named Achilles Clark, a soldier with the 20th Tennessee cavalry. In a letter to his sister after the battle, Clark reportedly wrote this:

"The slaughter was awful. Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded, negroes would run up to our men, fall on their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but were ordered back to their feet and then shot down. I and others tried to stop the butchery and at one time had partially succeeded but General Forrest ordered them shot down like dogs and the carnage continued. Finally our men became sick from all of the blood and the firing ceased."

Now consider this about Ida B. Wells-Barnett:

Born into slavery, she was an African-American journalist and newspaper editor and an early leader in the civil rights movement. She hated lynching and documented it, detailing its use use to control or punish blacks who competed with whites. She was active in the women's rights and the women's suffrage movement, establishing several notable women's organizations.

In her writings and lectures, it's said that Wells-Barnett was highly sophisticated in making arguments that prevented people from dismissing her claims as biased or untrue. She lectured nationally and internationally.

A college graduate of Fisk University, she was hired in Woodstock for the Shelby County school system in 1883. When she was 24 she wrote this: "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."

With just these few examples in mind, I can't see where Councilman Lowery got the idea to make park-mates of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. From which spring do ideas such as this from our city leaders burst through.

It's this kind of reasoning that led to things such as the surrendering of the Memphis School Board, the long vacancy of the Pyramid, a defunct Mid-South Coliseum and the destruction of Liberty Land

A rewritten adage seems appropriate here: "We won't be able to see Ida B. Wells because of the Forrest."

In preparation for this commentary, I stopped by the park, where I encountered the Rev. Andrew Singleton, pastor of Perfecting Life Church of God in Christ. I'll let him sum things up.

"When I was a college student I had to write a paper on Nathan Bedford Forrest and he was a horrible man," said Singleton.

"So today I brought my kids (ages 5, 2, 1) to this statue so that I can show them that there are good and bad people in this world and the bad one's don't deserve statues."

(You can reach Kelvin Cowans at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)


0 #3 Felicia McClendon 2013-01-25 12:14
Great JOB...I absolutely LOVE this!
0 #2 Brenda Bell Brown 2013-01-25 10:06
Mr. Cowans: Thank you. There will never be enough written to expose that atrocity, never. Thank you for bringing it to the light of day again as relates to Ida Wells Barnett. Physically, pay tribute to her on Beale Street. When doing so, return the street back to the street musicians that made is so, restore Handy park to a size larger than a postage stamp, and broaden the Memphis school curriculum so that our children will not forget our crusaders of justice, freedom, culture and peace.
+1 #1 Nina Allen-Johnson 2013-01-24 17:29
MAN! AWESOME article...very well articulated! I agree wholeheartedly!

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