Memphis church’s reconciliation project reveals untold story of slave-trading operation next door

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 15, 2018
Nathan Bedford Forrest

The historical marker in Memphis, Tennessee, for Nathan Bedford Forrest references only “his business enterprises” without identifying him as a slave trader who operated a slave mart on property next to Calvary Episcopal Church. Photo: Robyn Banks/Calvary Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] A previously little-known piece of history just outside the doors of Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee, is being brought to light as the church prepares to dedicate a historical marker at the pre-Civil War site of the Forrest Slave Mart.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a slave trader who served as a Confederate lieutenant general during the Civil War and later was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. Photo: Library of Congress, via Wikipedia

An existing historical marker on Calvary’s block notes that it once was the home of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a 19th-century businessman and Confederate general, but the marker fails to convey the more disturbing context: Forrest was a slave trader, and from 1854 to 1860 he operated a slave mart on property that the church now owns and uses as a parking lot.

The Rev. Scott Walters, rector at Calvary, called it “chilling” to think of the inhumanity that once occurred every day on land located just beyond the church wall behind him when he stands at the pulpit every Sunday. But the effort to research the full history of that block has been infused with a spirit of reconciliation as much as an interest in revealing ugly truths.

“We don’t want it to be a divisive thing but a truth that can be told that can lead to some healing,” Walters said in an interview with Episcopal News Service.

The new historical marker, to be dedicated April 4 as Memphis marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the city, is the product of a research project led by history professor Timothy Huebner, who is a member of Calvary Episcopal Church.

“It’s not that the existing marker isn’t factually accurate. … It just leaves out a lot,” Huebner told ENS. “And so that’s what we’re trying to do. We are trying to tell some of what has been left out that has to do with the history of that site.”

An organization called Lynching Sites Project Memphis, whose mission is to accurately tell the history of racial violence in and around the city, first drew attention to the existing historical marker in 2015. Organizers held a prayer service calling for the sign to be changed to make clear that Forrest’s “business enterprises” were the selling of humans.

At the same time, the Episcopal Church has made racial reconciliation one of its three priorities during the current triennium. Some dioceses already had taken up their own efforts to confront hard truths about their complicity with slavery, segregation and lynchings. Notable examples include the Diocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Tennessee, which encompasses the central third of the state but not Memphis.

In 2016, Huebner and others at Calvary Episcopal Church formed a group to learn more about the church’s block and surrounding properties. Their inquiries initially focused on blighted buildings and ways the congregation could help improve the neighborhood, but Huebner’s preliminary research soon gravitated toward Forrest’s historical activities on the block.

Slave mart ad

A Memphis city directory from the 1850s shows an ad for the slave mart run by Forrest and a business partner.

“We did not know at that point that he operated the slave mart at that actual site,” Huebner said. “We didn’t learn that until later.”

He uncovered those surprising details in newspaper advertisements and city directories from the 1850s. It also became obvious that the Tennessee Historical Commission would have looked through the same records and, therefore, been well aware of the Forrest slave mart when it drafted the text for its historical marker on the block, dedicated in 1955.

Huebner, who teaches at Rhodes College, chose to make Forrest the subject of his historical methods course in fall 2017. His 15 students researched Forrest’s life, as well as the history of that city block, and they determined that thousands of enslaved men, women and children were sold at the slave mart Forrest operated there.

The students also found that Forrest, one of at least eight slave traders in Memphis during the 1850s, was engaged in importing slaves from Africa, which had been outlawed by the U.S. in 1808.

Calvary Episcopal Church parking lot

The slave mart operated by Nathan Bedford Forrest was located on a property now being used by Calvary Episcopal Church for a parking lot. The church will dedicate a new historical marker on April 4 telling the fuller story of Forrest’s use of the property. Photo: Robyn Banks/Calvary Episcopal Church

The church was built in 1843, meaning the slave trading and Christian ministry were conducted nearly side by side for several years. No evidence has been found, however, that Forrest was a member or benefactor of the church.

His legacy in Memphis generated additional debate last year when a City Council vote led to the removal of a statue of Forrest from a city park in December. State legislators now are considering legislation that would punish local officials for such actions. Scrutiny of Confederate monuments intensified nationwide in August after a white supremacist rally in support of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended in deadly violence there.

In Memphis, Huebner’s students drafted the text on the new historical marker about Forrest. A group of local scholars vetted their research. The marker itself was paid for by the National Park Service. The students also have identified dozens of the slaves who were sold at the slave mart, and some of those names will be read during the dedication ceremony.

“That’s been poignant to me, realizing the names of real people and real lives and families are behind these statistics,” Walters said.

The dedication is part of a full slate of events on April 4 in Memphis, where the National Civil Rights Museum is leading commemorations marking 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel, about a mile from Calvary Episcopal Church.

Calvary’s ceremony is described as a “Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation,” and it will be led by Walters and the Rev. Dorothy Wells, the rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in nearby Germantown, Tennessee, and a 1982 graduate of Rhodes College who worshiped at Calvary when she was a student.

Wells, in an email to ENS while she finishes up a pilgrimage in Israel, said she was as surprised as anyone that a slave mart once operated nearby “as well-heeled worshippers came and went past it, week after week, apparently never questioning the trading of human lives for the proverbial few pieces of silver.”

Wells, who is black, also wonders if some of her own ancestors might have among those sold by Forrest.

“While it has been hard to process, I cannot dwell on that past – but only on the hope that the future holds,” she said. “I still believe that reconciliation is possible – but only if we as a nation are committed to truth-telling.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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Comments (16)

  1. John Merchant says:

    In its long and devoted ministry to downtown Memphis Calvary Church is one of the great parishes of the Episcopal Church.

  2. Rev. Canon Stephen N. Brannon says:

    Proud of Calvary Church where on a visit to Memphis in 1964 I worshipped and received Holy Communion. Good memories.

  3. Patricia Hoffman says:

    It disturbs me that there is even an historical marker denoting where his home stood. He was one of the worst generals that the Confederate army had. His actions before, during, and after the Civil War should not be displayed any where.

  4. I think it is important that we are aware not all of the United States past history was “great” or “praise worthy”. We need to know that awful, horrible things were done in past times so we don’t go back there again!

  5. LoriAnn Lavallee says:

    If we live in the past, rather than learning from it, we bring the emotions and grudges from there to now. I agree with Catherine that we need to see US History for what it WAS: history. It may not be comfortable or PC now, but it DID happen. Living in the here and now is important, but understanding the past requires recognition of everything. A plaque or monument does not always celebrate or glorify. Rather it should always inform in order for us to receive the information for us to contemplate in the context in which it happened.

  6. Helen Bell says:

    I wish this article included the language for the new historical marker. Reading that it is being updated means little without knowing precisely how honest the new marker will be.

    1. David Paulsen says:

      Helen, you are correct, the new language would be useful for our readers. It is a rather long, detailed text, but I will share it here. Just be aware that this marker is not yet displayed anywhere. It will be dedicated April 4:

      FORREST AND THE MEMPHIS SLAVE TRADE
      From 1854 to 1860, Nathan Bedford Forrest operated a profitable slave trading business at this site. In 1826, Tennessee had prohibited bringing enslaved people into the state for the purpose of selling them. As cotton and slavery grew in importance, the legislature repealed the ban in 1855. Starting that year, Memphis emerged as a regional hub for the slave trade. In addition to the more than 3,000 enslaved people who lived and worked in Memphis at the time, thousands more flowed into and out of the city, as traders and their agents brought a steady supply of human cargo into town via roads, river, and rail. In 1854, Forrest purchased this property on Adams, between Second and Third, just east of an alley behind Calvary Episcopal Church. Most slaves were sold at lots like this one before ending up on plantations in the Mississippi Delta or further south. Horatio Eden, sold from Forrest’s yard as a child, remembered the place as a “square stockade of high boards with two room Negro houses around….We were all kept in these rooms, but when an auction was held or buyers came, we were brought out and paraded two or three around a circular brick walk in the center of the stockade. The buyers would stand nearby and inspect us as we went by, stop us, and examine us.”

      Continued on back
      Much of the slave trade in Memphis occurred on Adams Avenue. Located in the heart of town and connecting the riverfront steamboat landing to the Memphis and Charleston Railroad line, the street offered easy access to buyers and sellers. In 1855, the city directory listed eight slave dealers, including Forrest, five of whom were located on Adams. While his business practices mostly resembled those of other traders in town, Forrest uniquely engaged in the buying and selling of Africans illegally smuggled into the United States, in violation of an 1808 congressional ban. Several sources confirm that in 1859 Forrest sold at least six newly-arrived Africans “direct from the Congo” at his yard. Slave trading proved a growth industry, and by 1860 the number of slave dealers in Memphis had increased to ten, including six with addresses on Adams. In that year, Forrest sold this property and moved one block east, where he expanded his operations, while another group of slave dealers took ownership of this lot. Secession and war disrupted the slave trading business, and in 1861 Forrest went off to fight for the Confederacy. In the decades after the Civil War, many white southerners chose to portray Forrest as a military hero, thus excusing or ignoring Forrest’s buying and selling of human beings.

      Sponsored by Calvary Episcopal Church, Rhodes College, and the National Park Service
      Dedicated 2018

      1. Helen Bell says:

        thank you for the text – it is a long one, indeed, but one with lots of explanation. It should be very good for educating people.

  7. F William Thewalt says:

    Back in 1850 slave trading was hardly illegal. Now we want to re-write history in an effort to make ourselves feel better and demonstrate to blacks we are “politically correct.” What a sham. When have we gone too far in our attempt to re-write history? We made our history in the 19th century. We cannot erase it in the 21st.

    1. Helen Bell says:

      F William Thewalt, I have never seen a NPS historical marker that took a moral stand on past events. They only report/ record those event, such as (perhaps) stating that Forrest established a slave market on that site and later was an early leader and the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

      Stating the text to be on the new sign in this article would have clarified this though.

  8. Susan M. Paynter says:

    We know from all too many human stories that “legal” and “moral” are often in conflict. I don’t see how filling in gaps in the history presented to us could be considered a re-write of history. I’m grateful to historians who work to flesh out the stories of our past and to clergy and other theologians who help us process that information in a way that leads us forward as the Body of Christ.

  9. Patricia Hoffman says:

    I am glad you let us know what this new marker explains. It should be displayed for all to read and contemplate. Thank you for your very informative articles.

  10. The Rev. Bob Sessum says:

    i could not be more proud and honored to be a former member since childhood of Calvary Church. It is most appropriate for this parish from which I was confirmed, married, and ordained as a deacon and now in my 48th year as a priest. As I would expect , that this fine parish to recognized this event in its history and make known this horrible event by erecting a plaque on its property.
    I am equally delighted to acknowledge Rhodes College, where I graduated in 1965 then known as Southwestern at Memphis played a partnership in this endeavor. Much respect to both organizations.

  11. Beth O'Leary (Richmond Va) says:

    Blessings on Calvary Church for undertaking this painful, challenging but important task. The proximity of the slave lot and church brought to mind this passage by Frederick Douglass, from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845:
    “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other — devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”

  12. onie Johns says:

    I suspect that further research might reveal that some of the “well-healed members of Calvery
    purchased some of those humans that Forrest sold.

  13. PJ Cabbiness says:

    There is little to gain and much to lose in “policing” history and adjusting the lens of our interpretation to suit the sentiment of the present. This is intellectually and academically counterproductive and troubling.

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