Renaming history

When should history be erased?

There’s a battle cry in Memphis this week after the city council there voted to change the name of Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park. It also renamed Confederate Park as Memphis Park and Jefferson Davis Park as Mississippi River Park.

Supporters of the move say they are bygone reminders of the Confederacy and have no place in a racially divese city.

Nathan Bedford Forrest is buried in the park that once carried his name. He was a slave trader before the Civil War and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after it, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper.

Memphis was trying to beat the clock. A bill passed an initial test in Nashville on Monday that would prevent cities from altering any “statue, monument, memorial, nameplate or plaque erected for a number of military events, including the ‘War Between the States,'” the paper reported.

The North is not immune from these controversies, although it appears that Tennessee is more sensitive to its past.

In Minneapolis, a debate flared briefly two years ago over a local man’s attempt to get the city to drop Calhoun… as in Lake Calhoun.

John C. Calhoun sent the Army to survey the region and authorized construction of Fort Snelling. That’s all it took to get a lake named after him here. The fact he was from South Carolina and was a militant proponent of slavery held no sway in the failed effort.

  • Your blog post has me thinking, Bob. As a professional historian, you’d think I’d have a cut and dry answer to this question, one along the lines of never changing the names of anything ever … ’cause that’s history.

    It’s not as simple as that, unfortunately. Historians are in the business of marking change over time, not making note of something once and being done with it. History evolves with people and if people right now decide they want to change “historic” names then that decision becomes part of our history.

    We have a bank building in Little Falls with the name “German-American National Bank” etched in the concrete facade, only the “German” has been filled in. That happened due to anti-German sentiment during World War I. A guy called me one day to demand that we have the word “German” restored. Aside from not being able to order private citizens to change their buildings, I advised against this restoration precisely because it was an instructive display of how people felt at a certain point in time.

    Surely Native Americans prior to the settlement of Memphis had different names for the areas called Forrest Park, Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park. Hopefully, historians have made note of that. The new names and the reasons for the changes will also be documented. And that’s history.

    In case readers think I’m being flip about changing historic names, that’s not my intent. I believe that such name changes should be done with a great deal of thought and community discussion.

    Thanks for giving me something to chew on this afternoon while I file historic documents.

  • Susan WB

    I think it’s important to remember that communities name buildings and other public places in order to *honor* people/events, not just to *remember*. If a community’s understanding of itself and its history and the people it has honored changes, such that the people no longer believe that an individual deserves this honor, then they should absolutely have the right to change the name.

    Nathan Bedford Forrest’s tomb hasn’t moved, but it would seem the community’s respect for him and what he stood for has diminished. Why should they be forced by the state to retain the name? It should be a local decision.

  • JosephineSouthern

    Well and good, but the PEOPLE should vote yes or no, up or down, to change the name of these parks.

    As for Ida B. Wells park, well let them build one for pete sakes stop taking others stuff, do your own thing.

    This change was a back room political deal made by liberal progressive democrats and they hate White people and they hate White Southern History. So put that in your historians pocket Mary Warner.

    If there were no Elvis Presley, Bedford Forrest or the Peabody Hotel Ducks Nobody would know Memphis at all!

  • I expect if able Gen. Forest would have saddled up King Phillip and pulling his wife up behind him have sadly rode out of Memphis many years ago..the leaders of the victims of our governments policy’s find easy straw men to attack. While the black community suffers. A sad situation. I always make errors in my post for those that like to find fault. Have a ball.