GATLINBURG — The Tennessee Historical Commission rejected a move by Memphis City Council to relocate the controversial statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a park near downtown Memphis.
The application for the move was submitted in reaction to the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013, which prevents cities or counties from relocating, removing, renaming, or otherwise disturbing war memorials on public properties.
The Tennessee Historical Commission denied the application for waiver based on criteria adopted by the commission in October 2015.
The meeting took place Friday morning at Brookside Resort Event Center in Gatlinburg. The 29-member board meets three times a year, in February, June and October. Eighteen members of the board were at Friday’s meeting.
According to Max Fleischer, legal representative for THC, the commission had the opportunity to vote to change the criteria Friday but no motion was made to do so.
“The commission had already adopted criteria, and if the application did not meet the criteria it would be denied,” Fleischer said. “Basically, what happened here today is the waiver came before the commission and they were given the option to allow it to be denied under that criteria or, if they wanted, they could have rescinded that criteria.”
In August 2015, the Memphis City Council voted to remove the statue, along with the remains of Forrest and his wife, from the park.
The commission considered only the fate of the statue on Friday. Family approval and court approval would be needed to relocate the remains of Forrest and his wife.
The council vote followed a national effort to remove Confederate symbols in public spaces in the wake of a widely publicized mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C.
Allan J. Wade, an attorney representing the city of Memphis, sought a waiver in March with the Tennessee Historical Commission to have the removal considered. In the application, Wade requested the statue be relocated to a “more suitable location.”
The application stated the city of Savannah, Tenn., “had expressed interest for the relocation” and The National Civil War Trust was considering a proposal to move the statue to Brice’s Crossroad National Battlefield site near Baldwyn, Miss.
“Both locations are far more suitable than the present site,” Wade said in the application.
The city can submit another application for waiver for consideration, but the criteria has not changed.
The statue, which depicts the former Confederate lieutenant-general astride his horse “King Phillip,” is currently located in Health Sciences Park between Union Avenue and Madison Avenue.
The statue was dedicated to the city of Memphis in 1905 and erected as an “enduring monument” to Forrest.
Forrest famously made a fortune trading slaves prior to the Civil War. He also was a controversial figure during the war, allegedly leading a massacre of Union Troops at Fort Pillow in 1864, most of whom were black and attempting to surrender.
He was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The 9,500-pound statue was designed in New York and cast in Paris, France. In 1904, the bodies of Forrest and his wife were reinterred to the site of the statue from Elmwood Cemetery.
Former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton suggested in 2015 the remains of Forrest and his wife should be moved back to Elmwood Cemetery, less than 2 miles south of their current resting place.
Frank Cagle, a columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel, said Friday that despite the desire in Memphis to relocate the statue, you cannot erase history.
“I think there is a lot of sentiment in Memphis to erase any memory of Forrest, but the Commission will run up against a buzz saw in the Legislature, where a bust of Forrest has a prominent niche,” Cagle said. “My position is that you don’t erase history. You use opportunities to have a teachable moment. Kids in school need to know what happened, the good and the bad.”