Last summer on the American Queen cruise where I was a musician, we stopped and tied up at Columbus, Kentucky, and took a tour of the Civil War-era state park. That town of Columbus had been a traditional town, with a straight grid of streets, and had been fortified by the Confederacy in the hopes of disrupting shipping on the Mississippi River. Ulysses S. Grant had captured it quickly, moving down from his base in Cairo, Illinois, one of his first great successes of the war. But that Columbus, Kentucky perished forever in the infamous flood of 1927, and the very site of it is now in the middle of the current river. In the wake of the disaster, the American Red Cross decided that the original town could not be salvaged. Instead, they hired an urban planner in Indianapolis to plan a new Columbus, Kentucky, which he did, according to the established planning of the day, with long curved streets and a large central parkway that was named for Herbert Hoover, since he had supervised the relief effort at Columbus. Some houses and buildings were salvaged from the old town and moved to the new site, but despite the new town plan on higher ground, a majority of the residents seem to have left the area altogether, and the new town was much smaller than the one it had replaced. Unless one were to look at a map, it would be easy to visit the new Columbus and never notice that it had been a planned development. Yet on a map, the modernistic design can be easily seen, even though the lack of buildings and residents make it look incomplete.
The Citizens to Save Our Parks and other groups that want to retain Memphis park names that honor the Confederacy often accuse those of us who favor renaming the parks of wanting to “change history.” That approach has actually worked well for them to some extent, because it changes the debate from one of offending African-Americans and progressive whites to one of what constitutes history, which is after all the past and which cannot be changed, since what happened is what happened.
However, their argument falls flat when subjected to close scrutiny. There is a difference between commemoration and honoring. Many park names commemorate historic events which occurred on or near their location, and no one ever suggests renaming them. This would include places like Shiloh National Battlefield, Vicksburg National Military Park, Columbus-Belmont State Park or Fort Pillow State Park. These parks are places where history occurred, and having a park there commemorates the events that occurred, without supporting one side or the other.
The Memphis parks, by contrast, with one exception, are not the locations of history. No momentous battles occurred on the site of Forrest Park or Confederate Park. The part of the old Public Promenade that was renamed for former Confederate president Jefferson Davis was the site of a brief and unglorious battle in which the Confederates in the park were no match for Union gunboats from the Mississippi River. Such was the “Battle of Memphis.” But the park’s name does not commemorate the battle per se, which, of course, Jefferson Davis was not present at, and which he had little to do with.
Memphis’ park names were rather chosen to honor the Confederacy itself, and those who served its cause. In that regard, Memphis around the turn of the 19th Century into the 20th differed little from other places in the South. The triumph of Jim Crow segregation and the election of Southern Democrat Woodrow Wilson to the White House seemed to unleash a new round of pro-Confederate sentiment in the South, an era that culminated in the release of the pro-Ku-Klux-Klan movie Birth Of A Nation. In choosing to name parks “Confederate”, “Jefferson Davis” and “Nathan Bedford Forrest”, Memphians of the early 20th Century were expressing their approval of what the Confederacy stood for and the men who fought for it, not merely neutrally remembering the past. It is this reason that these parks are so offensive to the African-American community.
New Orleans had a similar park, commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place, in which a paramilitary terrorist group called the White League successfully defeated the Metropolitan Police and overthrew the duly elected government of the state of Louisiana to re-establish white supremacy. The controversial monument praised white supremacy and was eventually removed after years of complaints.
Nobody can change history. What happened in the past happened. But when parks are arbitrarily named to honor the Confederacy and Confederate leaders, despite the fact that no historic event occurred on those grounds to justify the name, we are left with the conclusion that the names were chosen not to commemorate but to show community approval of that cause. Here in 2013, the Confederacy is no longer a cause that a majority of Memphians approve of, nor should they. Therefore, the names should be changed.
It’s absolutely amazing to watch a lot of suburban and out-of-town residents object to the renaming of Confederate-themed parks in a overwhelmingly Black city that many of them abandoned years ago and wouldn’t think of moving back into now. Why would you care about what a city where you used to live names its parks? Ultimately, if it is really that important to them that Memphis honor the founder of the Ku Klux Klan with a park name, they should move back into the city so that they will have a vote and a legitimate say-so. Otherwise, they should be quiet. The existing names of Jefferson Davis Park, Confederate Park and Forrest Park are offensive to probably as much as 85% of the current residents of Memphis, and they should not be forced to accept this because of the opinions of people who no longer live in Memphis or never did.
On the way back from Baltimore to Memphis, we passed through the little town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, known primarily for John Brown’s raid on the US Arsenal there in an attempt to foment a slave uprising. Although the effort failed, it contributed to the start of the Civil War. What I hadn’t known about is the absolutely beautiful setting of the little town, situated on a peninsula beside the wide Potomac River. An old church with a tall steeple dominates the townscape, and it appears to be full of old and historic architecture. I’m not sure if there’s much of a tourist trade, but there seems to be a bed-and-breakfast and a handful of restaurants and bars. The town is probably worth a special visit in the future.