[Episcopal News Service] A historical marker installed two years ago by an Episcopal congregation in Memphis, Tennessee, to tell the fuller story of slave trading on its block was knocked down last weekend in a possible act of vandalism.
The Rev. Scott Walters, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Memphis, discovered the damage upon leaving the church on the evening of July 18. The marker, which provided information about the slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest, had been broken off its post and was on the ground leaning against the post, still mostly intact.
A parish administrator notified police, who are taking the matter seriously, Walters told Episcopal News Service. The marker was posted away from the street in a park outside the church, which is “a hard place for an accident to happen,” Walters said. “It’s just hard to come up with an explanation other than something intentional.”
Like many American cities, Memphis saw protests against racism and police brutality after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The protests in Memphis, which remained mostly peaceful, have since subsided, and there was no initial indication that the apparent vandalism was related to the protests or the renewed push to remove public monuments to Confederate figures.
“It is certainly possible that those who are upset about the toppling of Confederate monuments thought that it would be appropriate to topple the marker that we put up a few years ago to be honest about our past,” Timothy Huebner, a Rhodes College history professor and Calvary member, told the Commercial Appeal. Huebner led the research project that produced the text for the marker.
Forrest, before serving as a Confederate general in the Civil War, operated a slave mart from 1854 to 1860 on property that the church now owns and uses as a parking lot.
Another historical marker that was dedicated in 1955 notes that the block once was the home of Forrest, who is benignly described only as a 19th-century businessman. That marker was untouched this week.
In 2015, an organization called Lynching Sites Project Memphis organized a prayer service calling for the sign to be changed to make clear that Forrest’s “business enterprises” were the selling of humans. The following year, Calvary formed a research group with Huebner at the helm to learn more about the church’s block and surrounding properties.
The church was built in 1843, meaning the slave trading and Christian ministry were conducted nearly side by side for several years. No evidence was found, however, that Forrest was a member or benefactor of the church.
In December 2017, the Memphis City Council voted to remove a statue of Forrest from a city park, and in April 2018, Calvary held a “Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation” to dedicate its new historical marker that drew on the new research into Forrest’s slave trading on the block.
This week, the damaged marker was brought to the Metal Museum in Memphis to be restored, though Walters couldn’t say yet how much that work would cost or when it would be completed.
The congregation’s effort to correct the historical record about Forrest was an important initial step in responding to The Episcopal Church’s call to engage in the work of racial reconciliation, Walters said. Clergy and lay leaders now are discussing how Calvary can foster further discussions with other Episcopal congregations about the church’s historic complicity in systemic racism and the need for racial healing.
“It’s work that we feel like we’ve just gotten started on at Calvary,” Walters said. “We feel like the spirit is prodding us on to what’s next, as we see that these issues are deep and persistent.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.