Story at a glance

  • Though many cities have begun removing statues and monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers, many Southern cities face legal restrictions.
  • Officials in Memphis, Tenn., found a clever loophole that allowed them to remove two Confederate statues in public parks.
  • Since the removal of the statues and improvements made to the parks, they’ve seen a large uptick in local usage.
  • As a result of the removals, federal funding was cut for the city’s 200-year anniversary.

In late 2017, the city of Memphis, Tenn., performed somewhat of a magic trick. Not your traditional rabbit-in-hat sleight of hand, but a disappearing act that was far more grand. They made two Confederate war memorials disappear from downtown public parks. Where’s the magic in that, you may ask? The state (like many others in the South, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia) has laws in place to ban the removal of such monuments. So how did they do it?

Well, the city originally sought permission from the Tennessee Historical Commission to remove the statues, but that was refused. Instead, Memphis came up with a quiet but swift workaround.

“I think these parks were pretty passive to begin with, there was nothing much to attract you there, and there was also this statue and the names of those parks that repelled you. These labels and objects that push people away. So, we knew that was a problem,” says Carol Coletta, president and CEO of the Memphis River Parks Partnership. “The mayor began working behind the scenes with a group of lawyers, trying to find a way to legally remove [the statues], and came up with a really rather ingenious idea.”

What they did was sell the parks to a new nonprofit organization called Memphis Greenspace for $1,000 each. With the parks now privately owned the state was no longer bound by the ban on statue removal. The monuments were removed that same night.

Intentional changes

Memphis joins a growing list of American cities choosing to remove Confederate war monuments. In just the last three years, 108 Confederate monuments have come down via officeholders’ decisions, according to The Washington Post. That number may seem large, but actually makes up less than 10 percent of the overall 1,880 statues.

The statues that were removed by the nonprofit in Memphis include one of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. It once stood in a downtown Memphis park named originally after Davis, now named River Garden. The other stood in what was once named Nathan Bedford Forrest Park — the Nathan Bedford Forrest who became a Confederate general and later the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Coletta tells Changing America that Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife are also buried in the park.

“What we've tried to do is make sure that both of these parks are inclusive, they are inviting to all. We have tried to ensure they’re inclusive in four ways: one, who helped make both parks; two, how we staff the parks and welcome people into the parks; three, by involving the neighbors; and four, by involving the actual neighborhoods,” says Coletta.

In the past two years, Jefferson Davis Park underwent a transformation to become River Garden. In its first year, River Garden has quickly become the most popular and active park on the riverfront. Confederate Park became Memphis Park, Nathan Bedford Forrest Park became Health Sciences Park and, this fall, a renovation removed the remaining base of the former statue of Davis. The park is slated to reopen this January after a light touch remake.

Definitive proof that the effort is working came just eight months after the memorials were taken down, when Memphis’ inaugural Dîner En Blanc, a “chic picnic” dinner, attracted more than 1,000 people to Memphis Park.

In just two short years, Memphis has turned these formerly abandoned and divisive spaces into revitalized, thriving and welcoming gathering places, used by thousands of people, visitors and residents of a majority African American city.

Memphis did this with an intentional strategy that incorporated good design, programming and creative operations, led by a diverse coalition of local elected officials, national foundations, nonprofit leaders, public space advocates and community activists — a group of people focused on using these public spaces for social good.

When asked about the local reception of the changes Coletta tells us, “really it’s like, ‘well, it's about time.’ And so, once it's done, it seems so obvious that it needed to happen a long time ago, and nobody made it a priority. So, you know, shame on us, but it's gone now, and we can make it a beautiful inclusive public space.”

Next year, Memphis will celebrate the 200-year anniversary of its founding. At the last minute, the city had $250,000 of state funding revoked, as a majority of state legislators felt that by removing the Davis and Forrest statues, Memphis had violated the intent and spirit of the historic preservation law. The Tennessee House of Representatives voted to strip the city of the sum that had been earmarked to go toward planning for Memphis' bicentennial celebrations next year.

“Honestly, for me, if $250,000 is the price for all of us to move on and be done, then hallelujah,” says Worth Morgan, a member of the Memphis City Council.

Where are the statues now?

Just a few days ago it was confirmed that Memphis Greenspace handed both statues over to the Sons of Confederate Veterans "to display them as they wish," City of Memphis legal officer Bruce McMullen said.

The group had filed a suit against the city over the removal of the statues, but the removal was deemed legal by a Davidson County judge. While the statues may be re-erected at some point by the group made up of male descendants of Confederate soldiers, they aren’t allowed to put the statues back up in Memphis or Shelby County as a part of their agreement with Memphis Greenspace.

“The statues will be re-erected,” a member of SCV named Lee Millar told WMC Action News 5 yesterday, “but we’ve not finalized plans or a location for those yet. But they will be available to the public for all to see.”


Published on Dec 21, 2019