MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It started in the dark of night on Dec. 20, 2017 when the statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest was taken down from a public park in Memphis.
Now nearly four years later and after a lengthy legal battle crews have started to remove the pedestal that bore the monument.
Workers arrived at a Memphis park Tuesday to begin the process of digging up the remains of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, and moving the former slave trader’s body from its longtime resting place in Memphis to a museum hundreds of miles away.
“The litigation is over. Everyone knew this was coming,” said Van Turner, a Shelby County commissioner and president of Memphis Greenspace, a nonprofit that took control of the former public park.
Lee Millar with the Sons of Confederate Veterans said the removal of the pedestal that once supported Forrest’s statue is the first phase of the effort to remove Forrest’s remains. The remains, along with the statue that was removed from the park in 2017, will be moved to a site in Columbia, Tennessee.
The group said a couple of cracks in the pedestal promoted the repair work, which will take weeks. Millar estimated the cost at about $150,000 to $200,000.
Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer led the efforts of “Take ‘Em Down 901,” which were instrumental in the removal of the statues honoring Forrest and Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
“You cannot tell this story without telling the story of Take ‘Em Down 901 and the loss and safety of my life,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer said she was harassed and threatened upon arriving to be interviewed as crew worked Tuesday afternoon.
The pedestal is made up of pieces of granite that weigh five tons each.
“This is a big process to disassemble the monument, so it’ll take oh, two, three weeks to do this,” Millar said.
Eight feet under the pedestal are the tombs of the former Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, along with his wife.
They will stay there for now until the pedestal is removed and repaired. Then the remains will be relocated to Columbia, Tennessee.
“History is important to everybody. Everybody’s history is important to everybody, so it’s unfortunate that this had to happen,” Millar said. “But now that it has, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Forrest family are in agreement that it needs to be moved to a place where it can be appreciated.”
With the approval of Forrest’s relatives, the Sons of Confederate Veterans is overseeing the move. A judge approved it late last year, ending a long legal battle.
It is another example of how cities and activists have taken steps in recent years to get rid of statues and monuments of historical figures who supported the South’s secession and led the fight against the North, from Gen. Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
Forrest sold slaves in Memphis and served in the Confederate army as a cavalry general. In April 1864, Forrest’s troops attacked Fort Pillow in northwest Tennessee and killed 200 to 300 Union soldiers, most of them Black.
Forrest was later accused of massacring the Union soldiers. Questions linger as to whether they were killed as they tried to surrender. Northern newspaper reports referred to the battle as an atrocity.
Historians say he later became an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, though some of Forrest’s supporters dispute that. Forrest’s critics call him a violent racist.
The remains of Forrest and his wife were moved from a Memphis cemetery and buried under the statue of the former Memphis city council member in 1904. The city took down the statue in December 2017 after selling the public park to a nonprofit group, thus circumventing a state law barring the removal of historic monuments from public areas.
A judge in Nashville ruled that the city and Memphis Greenspace, the non-profit that made the park privately operated, removed the statue legally.
Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, president of Memphis Greenspace, said Tuesday’s work to remove the pedestal above Nathan Bedford Forrest’s grave is the culmination of years of work by many. He says this will be the lengthiest part of the process.
The remains will be reburied and the statue placed at the National Confederate Museum at Elm Springs in Columbia, according to an affidavit from Bedford Forrest Myers, a great-great-grandson. Owned by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, the museum opened to the public in October. It is located about 200 miles from Memphis.
The park where Forrest was buried has been the site of protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Activists have long called for the removal of both the statue and the remains. The words “Black Lives Matter” have been painted in yellow by activists on a walkway surrounding the tomb.
“Relocating the graves is proper because the Property has lost its character as a burial ground,” Myers wrote in a legal filing.
The tree-lined park is next to the University of Tennessee’s medical school and a community college on Union Avenue, a busy street leading in and out of downtown Memphis.