Forrest Park has quietly been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and efforts to rename the park or disinter the bodies buried there have, for now, been laid to rest.
The park at Union and Manassas where Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife are buried received the honorary designation this month from the National Park Service.
The park has long been a point of racial controversy in Memphis, with local officials and other groups periodically rallying to rename the park and remove the statue of Forrest, a revered cavalry leader in the Civil War who also was a slave trader and a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Fans of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest were “the firstest with the mostest” at maneuvering to get National Park Service recognition of the park’s controversial name.
The nomination was submitted by the Forrest Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“It’s just a great honor to have the park and the statue recognized as a historic place,” said Lee Millar, the camp’s public affairs officer. “We’re very happy for fellow historians and the city and county to have another site listed on the national register.”
Although not involved in seeking the designation, the Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy also was excited by the news.
“I’m very happy, basically because it’s just a part of Memphis’ history that needs to be preserved for future generations,” said president Audrey Rainey.
Attorney and former Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey tried to quash the nomination but says continued protests will be put on hold. “I think we’re at a point where until such time as we see some concern by our city leaders, we have to continue to pause,” Bailey said. And he doesn’t blame the Forrest supporters for their success.
“It seems to me the responsibility and the blame rest with our city leaders for being so passive about it,” Bailey said. Last fall, the nomination went before the Tennessee Historical Commission. Initially approved, the vote was rescinded after about a dozen Memphians, including Bailey and state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, protested, arguing that the park had been created to pay homage to a slave trader.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans withdrew the nomination, regrouped and successfully appealed the state commission’s decision to the park service, which administers the register. Despite the successful bid, the designation is an honor, not a shield.
Because Forrest Park is owned by the city of Memphis, the city has the authority to rename it or have the graves moved unless the project involves federal dollars, said Bill Reynolds, spokesman with the National Park Service in Atlanta.
“If the city makes changes to the site in some way, shape or form that would or could cause a potential review of the status of the site, it could cause it to lose its designation if the historical integrity of the site is compromised in any way,” he said.
The 8-acre park was established in the early 1900s and was designed by famed park and landscape designer George Kessler. The sculpture of Forrest was done by Charles H. Niehaus, whose work can be seen at the Library of Congress.