Martin Luther King Jr. lives on in new era of reconciliation between white and black

Martin Luther King Jr. lives on in new era of reconciliation between white and black
© Getty Images

All eyes are on Memphis as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. approaches. While the day’s events will rightly focus on King’s towering legacy as a civil rights leader, we in the city are also confronting part of our deeper and longer history — Memphis’s involvement in the antebellum slave trade.

On April 4, we will erect the first historic marker expressing the fact that during the 1850s thousands of enslaved people passed in and out of the city as human cargo. 

ADVERTISEMENT

One of the city’s most important slave marts once stood at the corner of Adams Avenue and B.B. King Street in Downtown Memphis, listed in the city directory at the time as “87 Adams.” The site is now the parking lot of Calvary Episcopal Church, a historic parish whose building dates to 1843. 

 

In 1854, Nathan Bedford Forrest purchased the plot of land on Adams, just east of an alley in the rear of the church, and from that base of operations became one of the city’s wealthiest slave traders. 

Forrest’s “slave dealership,” as well as the nine other slave-trading businesses that operated in Memphis by 1860, were part of a larger system of human oppression, created and sustained by a combination of climate, cotton, and capitalism. 

During the 1840s and 1850s, the profitability of cotton cultivation drew increasing numbers of white settlers to the fresh, fertile lands of the states of the Old Southwest: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. 

Because Congress had banned the importation of African slaves in 1808, thus cutting off the external supply of labor, white landowners in these newly settled areas sought to purchase enslaved people from other parts of the American South. An abundance of slaves in Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky met planters’ demand for labor, as traders or their agents bought the enslaved for low prices before transporting and selling them further south at a profit.

Adams Avenue lay at the center of the Memphis trade. Located in the heart of town and connecting the Mississippi River steamboat landing to the Memphis and Charleston Railroad line, the street offered easy access to buyers and sellers.  

While many know the name of Forrest — he went on to become a Confederate general — most of the names of the enslaved people who were bought and sold at “slave marts” or “slave yards” such as the one at 87 Adams are lost to history.  

Painstaking archival research can reveal some of the names of the enslaved, and my students at Rhodes College have worked for the past several months to recover a portion of these names. At a “Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation” at the site on April 4, we will read the names and ages of some of the souls who were “sold down the river” to plantations south of Memphis. 

It is time to confront this history. In the decades after the Civil War, a nation previously divided gradually chose a path of reconciliation. Northerners and Southerners joined together in dedicating Civil War military parks and holding veteran reunions. Elected officials throughout the land during this period routinely paid homage to the brave men, Union and Confederate, who fought in the war.

Tragically, however, this reconciliation between North and South — more precisely, between white northerners and white Southerners — excluded African Americans. It downplayed the role of slavery and abolitionism in bringing about the conflict, all but erased blacks’ military contribution to the war, and occurred alongside the legalization of Jim Crow in the southern states. Confederate monuments that emphasized the South’s military heroism, rather than acknowledged its pre-war commitment to slaveholding, proliferated across the landscape.

This narrative of national reconciliation and military heroism was especially pervasive in Memphis. In 1905, Confederate veterans erected in the center of town a monument to Forrest with an inscription that glorified his attributes as a general. Fifty years later, the Tennessee Historical Commission placed a marker at the site of Forrest’s slave mart that mentioned only that he had a home there and that he became wealthy from his “business enterprises.” The marker neglected to mention that Forrest’s home stood adjacent to his business and that his business was transporting and trading enslaved human beings. 

A few months ago Memphis removed its monument to Forrest. Now we will take a further step toward changing the 20th-century’s white-washing of America’s pre-Civil War history. By erecting a new marker at the site of the Forrest slave mart, we will tell the truth about the slave trade in Memphis, and in so doing, we hope to initiate a new era of reconciliation — between white and black — based on honesty and trust. 

In 1968, King came to Memphis to show solidarity with the city’s striking sanitation workers, who held signs that simply said, “I am a Man.” By remembering the names of the enslaved and respecting the dignity of their lives, we will attempt to follow King’s example of lifting up the forgotten. Doing so also recognizes that King’s fateful visit to Memphis occurred within the context of a deeper and longer struggle for justice. 

Timothy S. Huebner, the Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College and a member of Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, is the author of “Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism.”