The remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife have been removed from Health Sciences Park in Memphis and taken to a vault in an undisclosed location in West Tennessee.
Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, Lee Millar from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Brent Taylor, current Shelby County Election Commissioner who served as the funeral director overseeing the exhumation, spoke at a press conference Friday outside the park.
Work to remove the remains of the infamous Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan began June 1 and was expected to take two to three weeks.
Workers discovered the remains on Monday, around 9:01 a.m., but no announcement was made until Friday, in order to allow time to confirm that the area had been properly searched for all artifacts, Taylor said. Taylor and Turner pointed out that the removal of the statue also took place at the timestamp for Memphis’ area code, but in the evening, at 9:01 p.m. in December 2017.
The remains and statue are slotted to be reassembled and interred in Columbia, Tennessee at the National Confederate Museum at Elm Springs.
The construction crew started the excavation under the assumption that the remains would be found directly under the statue but when crews discovered the remains were likely deeper, the park became an archeological excavation site, according to Millar, who described the dig as a “tedious process.”
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The crew found a “Victorian cradle,” containing the initials of Forrest, which tipped them off to the location of the Forrests’ remains. Ultimately, the graves were found 10 feet below the plaza base with Forrest’s casket being removed intact, but his wife’s had significantly deteriorated. Her remains were placed in a temporary casket.
The park is slated to host a Juneteenth celebration, but the privacy fence surrounding the plaza will remain through the festivities, Turner said. He added that work in the park should be finished by July 1 but would have been completed last year had the pandemic not disrupted court dates.
Turner said plans to erect a new symbol in Forrest’s place have not yet been discussed.
“Let’s just let the park breathe, let’s relax a little bit and enjoy the park,” he said. “We’re going to leave it up to the Memphians and the Shelby Countians [on the destiny of the park].”
The park, formerly known as Forrest Park, was purchased by Memphis Greenspace in 2017 when the equestrian statue was removed.
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The statue of Forrest stood from 1904 to 2017 when the city of Memphis transferred ownership of the park to Memphis Greenspace, a nonprofit run by Turner, now a Shelby County Commissioner. Turner was intimately involved in the delicate legal process that led to work beginning early this month.
Descendants of Forrest were present when the caskets were unearthed, just as they were when they were first placed in the ground in November 1904. Millar said the Forrest family was relieved that the remains were located and that they would be placed in a secure location. He called it a “full circle moment.”
A photographer captured the exhumation for Shelby County and the Forrest family, but it is likely that those photos will remain sealed, Taylor said.
“We wanted this process to be respectful, to be something that healed divisions,” said Turner, describing a similarly “full circle” moment of having a Juneteenth celebration on the heels of the exhumation, a celebration of emancipation at a park that once did not allow Black people and has recently symbolized Memphis’ divisions.
“I think the Forrest family wanted the remains of their ancestor to rest in peace,” Turner continued, “because there was never going to be peace here.”
The removal followed a robust grassroots organizing effort from Take ‘Em Down 901 that drove public awareness and political pressure to remove the statues. The effort was spearheaded by now Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer and Rev. Earle Fisher.
While work to exhume the remains took place, Commissioner Sawyer was taunted by a site worker as she addressed media. The man, 46-year-old George “K-Rack” Johnson, could be seen waving a Confederate flag, heard singing “Dixie,” calling Sawyer a “communist piece of sh-t,” and saying that “if you were a man, I would beat your a–” according to a police report.
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Sawyer pressed charges and a warrant for Johnson’s arrest was subsequently issued three days later. He was charged with misdemeanor assault, arrested and has since been released.
The ongoing tension surrounding the park “could have been a disaster,” according to Turner. Instead, he said the two sides of the political spectrum were committed to working alongside one another.
“We have not had the issues other cities have had,” Taylor said. “We did this right.”
Lucas Finton is a news intern at the Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.