I accompanied students from my American Sacred Space class to Health Sciences Park, just a 5-minute drive from our Memphis campus, where we visited the half-dismantled monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notoriously brutal slave trader, Confederate general, and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The handsome horse and his gallant rider have fled.
They were a dream, a valiant attempt to remake a horrible scar blighting our history into something respectable. Now only this unseemly granite block protruding from the weed-riddled stone platform remains as an ugly reminder of an uglier past.
A makeshift fence and a circle of orange cones corrals the naked block of stone. But the horse and its rider galloped off before anyone thought to pen them in.
The weight of this granite pedestal must be a crushing reminder to the frail human remains beneath it. Is this the auction block on which he gained his wealth by cruel shattering of innocent lives? No, not this chunk of chiseled rock, but some stone or wooden platform like it brought unimagined riches to him and his not-so-innocent wife.
The sobbing echoes of unimagined sufferings still vibrate in this city.
Maybe the fence is meant to keep out the vengeful spirits of those who once stood on his auction block, or those who met horrible deaths at his command. But this flimsy fence encircling the tomb must be little comfort to the souls quivering in their graves beneath this stone. They will find no peace in this park or anywhere their rotting bones may land. Damnation is for eternity.
Now the weeds flourish in the granite cracks, mockingbirds stain the stone slabs, and trees spread their shade over other corners of this quiet park. The fence, the cones, the weeds, the ugliness of it all seems a fitting memorial to the remnant desperation of the Confederate States of America. If this unsightly scar in a Memphis park is all that is left of America’s darkest moment, then we should celebrate. The war is nearly over.
Update: the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife were removed from Memphis in June, 2021, according to news reports.