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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Forrest for the Trees

In the minds of most white people—at least most white people of a certain age, including, at one time, this white person—the civil rights movement began only in the 1960s. Until then—again, in the view of most whites—black Americans had either suffered in silence or perhaps had not suffered at all. I have often heard the older generation observe that “back then”—meaning the 1950s—“we had no problems.” As far as most white people are concerned, blacks did not fight for their rights or push back against white discrimination and intimidation until the 1960s, when they suddenly got angry and started marching in the streets. “They want everything,” my dear, great-aunt Sabina used to say circa 1972 as she habitually wrung her hands and paced across the floor of her shotgun house on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. “They’re taking over.”

That is why historical inquiries such as Donna Elizabeth Reeves’s 2008 dissertation are so valuable. Titled “Battle for an Image: Black Memphians Define Their Place in Southern History,” Dr. Reeves examines the reactions of black Memphians to an event that long predates the 1960s: the creation in 1931 of the Cotton Carnival. She also examines the comparatively recent reactions of black Memphians, and the counter-reactions of whites, to the equestrian statue and public park honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, both of which were dedicated in 1905. According to Dr. Reeves, the carnival, statue, and park were attempts by whites to affirm white supremacy and control the historical narrative—in particular, posterity’s understanding of the Civil War, plantation culture, and the slave economy. In reacting to those things, blacks sought to define their own role in and contributions to the Old, as well as the New, South. The battleground was the public space: whites attempted to claim the public space to the exclusion of blacks; blacks consistently met those attempts with claims of equal citizenship.

I’ll first take up the Cotton Carnival; then I’ll move on to the statue of Forrest.

The Cotton Carnival was started in 1931 by a group of Memphis businessmen, including the president of the Memphis Cotton Exchange, Everett Cook, to promote the sale and use of cotton. By that time, the price of cotton had fallen to just five cents a pound. Modeled on the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations of the 1870s—an intriguing topic in its own right—the inaugural Cotton Carnival featured a parade of eighty-six floats, a fashion show, and a king and queen to preside over the festivities. The gala event was designed to boost the economic standing of the crop that was so important to Memphis’s welfare.

Cotton Carnival, Memphis, Tennessee, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
That, at least, is the official version of the story. Another version, which is advanced by Dr. Reeves, is that the carnival was not just about selling cotton; it was also about creating an image of the negro that was acceptable and congenial to Memphis whites—an image, in Dr. Reeves’s words, as “hapless, obtuse slaves.” Indeed, the express theme of the first carnival was the Old South. Blacks did participate, but only to “serve white partygoers.” Black women, dressed as mammies, greeted whites as they arrived at the carnival’s events, and black men dressed in white jackets and caps pulled the carnival’s floats.

It was the sight of black men pulling the floats that inspired the black reaction to the carnival. As the story goes, at the 1935 carnival, a black dentist named R. Q. Venson asked his young nephew Quincy, with whom he was watching the parade, if he liked what he was seeing. To the dentist’s surprise, Quincy said no; he did not like the fact that “all of the negroes were horses.” Bothered by his nephew’s remark, Dr. Venson, soon after that year’s carnival had ended, approached the organizers to ask if there could be “some kind of dignified role” for black citizens. Dr. Venson was told, in a word, no; one of the organizers, however, A. Arthur Halle, president of Phil A. Halle Department Store, “showed Venson some kindness” and suggested that the dentist start his own carnival, one specifically for blacks. Thus was born, in 1936, with the help of money raised from wealthy black Memphians such as Dr. J. E. Walker and Robert Church Jr., the Cotton Makers Jubilee, complete with king and queen. Its parade of floats rolled along Beale Street, and its grand marshal was W. C. Handy, the Father of the Blues.

As Dr. Reeves tells us, the Cotton Makers Jubilee, like the Cotton Carnival, wanted to promote cotton. But in keeping with Dr. Venson’s initial request, it had another goal as well. The organizers wanted to honor the labor and expertise that black slaves and, after them, black farmers applied to the cultivation of cotton: it was that work and that knowledge that had built the fortunes of many white Memphians. The jubilee was a serious-minded affair intended to present blacks in a respectful, constructive, and historically accurate light. “African Americans made a bold stand,” Dr. Reeves writes. “They [presented themselves as] cotton royalty. In their eyes black people occupied the space they should have had all along.”

Cotton Carnival, Memphis, Tennessee, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
To my knowledge, Dr. Reeves’s dissertation is the only source that treats at any length the history of the Cotton Makers Jubilee; she takes the story to 1970, by which time many blacks had begun to criticize the jubilee and question its purpose. (In the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many of the city’s African Americans had come to believe that the jubilee was just “the Cotton Carnival in blackface.”) Most of her account draws on materials in the Venson family papers, which are at the Memphis public library. Among the papers are numerous essays that were written in connection with each jubilee, including a “somewhat stunning” essay written by Dr. Venson in 1941 that points to a class conflict among jubilee participants as it derides the formal education blacks sought at the time—an education that, in Dr. Venson’s words, “teaches [the black man] for the Bank president’s chair and then speedily places a mop and bucket in his hand.” Dr. Reeves quotes extensively from the essay, which exhorted black Memphians, in the manner of Booker T. Washington, to support the back-to-the-soil movement.

Now to the second subject discussed in Dr. Reeves’s dissertation, the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the eponymous park. For readers who are unfamiliar with Memphis, it needs to be explained that Forrest Park occupies an entire city block in the heart of a nationally renown medical center; it is bordered by two major thoroughfares, so anyone traveling east or west in the city is likely to pass it. The statue is, I have read, one-and-a-half-times life size. In short, it’s a big statue in a highly visible location.

For those readers who happen to be unfamiliar with Forrest, it should be explained as well that he was a slave trader, a Confederate cavalry general, and an early member—some say founder—of the Ku Klux Klan. It should also be pointed out that Forrest lived a good deal of his life in Memphis. By 1858 he had established himself in the city as a leading slave trader. After the Civil War, he returned to Memphis and spent his remaining twelve years there. He was president of the Marion & Memphis Railroad and, after that operation failed, ran a prison work farm on Presidents Island. He died in Memphis in 1877 and was buried in the city’s famous Elmwood Cemetery. That was where his remains lay until 1905, when they were reinterred under the equestrian statue in the park that bears his name. The unveiling and dedication ceremony, which occurred on May 16 of that year, attracted over 30,000 people.

Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, Forrest Park, Memphis, Tennessee. Photograph by Thomas R. Machnitzki. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The statue of Forrest has been the target of isolated protests over the years, including, one would suspect, protests by black Memphians at the time of its dedication. I was therefore disappointed not to find in Dr. Reeves’s dissertation contemporary reactions of black Memphians to the statue and park. What did black Memphians say and write in 1905? Perhaps the documents simply do not exist. If that is the case, the author does not tell us. (Note: Through Duke University, I have access to an electronic database of historical black newspapers. I searched the database and found only one contemporary reference to the statue, from the Baltimore Afro-American of May 20, 1905; it simply read, “The bronze equestrian statue of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest was unveiled at Memphis, Tennessee.”)

The reactions Dr. Reeves documents begin in 1979, when a man named Isaac Richmond, an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), read aloud at the base of the statute a petition demanding that the city tear the monument down, claiming that it was an “insult” to black Memphians. That year, racial tensions were again high in Memphis. The incumbent mayor, Wyeth Chandler, was running against a black candidate, a lawyer named Otis Higgs, who had also run against Chandler four years before. During the 1979 campaign a cross was burned in Higgs’s yard; another burning cross was tossed into the home of Higgs’s son, along with a note that read, “If not Otis, then his son.” To make matters worse, the Commercial Appeal, the city’s largest daily newspaper, chose that time to run a series of articles chronicling the recent growth of the Ku Klux Klan.

Since then, there have been other calls to remove the statue and rename the park. In 1988, a protest arose when the University of Tennessee Medical School, which sits catty-corner from the park, announced plans to hold a ceremony there honoring the retiring chancellor; the protestors argued that holding the event at Forrest Park would be tantamount to endorsing slavery and white supremacy. In 1999, Inward Journey, an African American activist organization, staged an event whose aim was not to have the statue removed but to reclaim the park by transforming it into a “shrine of healing.” The event was led in part by a man named Al Lewis, who in the 1970s had been a student at Shelby State Community College, whose campus sat right across the street from the park. In 2005, Walter Bailey, a local attorney and politician, led a campaign for the city to rename not only Forrest Park but Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park as well.

Forrest Park and the equestrian statue are still with us. Dr. Reeves ends her dissertation by arguing that as times, values, and attitudes change, so should our public monuments: those that are out of step should be removed from public land. The statue of Forrest, she writes, reprising one of her themes, “is about identity and who controls the public’s memory of historical events.”

Lost in the controversy is the statue itself, which, according to J. P. Young in his Standard History of Memphis, Tennessee (1912), was only the second monument erected in the city (the first was a small bust of Andrew Jackson in Court Square). It all began when the Forrest Monument Association was formed in 1891 to raise money for a statue in Memphis honoring the Confederate general. Nine years later the association invited sculptors to submit models; the winning model was that of Charles Henry Niehaus (1855-1935) of New York City, a popular American sculptor born in Cincinnati who is best known for the Francis Scott Key Memorial in Baltimore. Niehaus, who had studied in Germany and lived in Italy, made the model for the Forrest statue in New York and cast it in Paris at the foundry of E. Gruet Jeune. From there it was shipped back to New York, then by sea to Savannah. In Savannah it was held up over some confusion about a bridge on the seaboard being passable or not. The statue was then shipped by accident to Atlanta. There it remained for a month--suspected bridge troubles again, this time with the Cedartown bridge in Georgia. It began to look as if the statue would have to be sent back to Savannah and transported to Memphis by way of New Orleans. But it was from Atlanta that the statue finally made its way to the Bluff City. (The details about the statue’s itinerary come from the May 1905 issue of Granite, Marble, & Bronze, published in Boston.)

The statue was the subject of books and serials even before it was unveiled. A publication out of Chicago titled The Reporter, which billed itself as “a leading monthly magazine for monument workers and dealers,” updated its readers on Niehaus’s progress in its July 1904 issue. The sculptor “has spared nothing, even to the minutest detail, to make it a work of art.” Niehaus had examined three thousand horses before finding one that was a suitable model. “Even then, before making the casting the sculptor secured the services of a veterinarian to make sure there would not appear anything in the casting contrary to nature as shown in the equine race.” A 1903 book on the history of American sculpture by the Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft looked ahead to the statue's unveiling. “A photograph of the model gives promise of one of the best equestrian statues in the country.”

The dissertation was written at the University of Memphis under the direction of Dr. Janann Sherman.

1 comment:

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