Statues celebrating the Confederacy that stood in two Memphis parks for decades were, for many, a hindrance to enjoying those public spaces. The monuments honoring two men who were symbolic of a divisive history stood in prominent public parks intended for the enjoyment of all citizens. Complaints had been increasing for years that they were eyesores and inappropriate. It was a problem that needed solving.
Community activists called for the removal of the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Health Sciences Park, and of Jefferson Davis in Memphis Park (formerly Confederate Park). They frequently rallied near the statues, protesting with signs and bullhorns. Defenders of the statuary said they had historical importance, but the growing consensus — including the mayor, the Memphis City Council, and many citizens — wanted them out of public parks.
There was little hope, however, that the statues would be moved. After the Tennessee Historical Commission denied the city’s request to remove the statues in October 2017, the city faced legal obstacles in trying to take the statues down. But Van Turner had an idea. Turner, an attorney and a Shelby County Commissioner, created the non-profit Memphis Greenspace Inc. to get the statues removed legally. Greenspace would buy the parks, which gave it the right as a private property owner to remove the statues.
Turner says he got involved with the issue about seven months before the vote by the state historical commission. While attending a Memphis Grizzlies game with his mentor and the city’s chief legal officer, Bruce McMullen, the topic of the monuments came up in conversation. McMullen asked Turner if he would be willing to play a role in doing something about it. Turner was eager to accept the challenge.
Over the next few months, they brainstormed how to pull it off and the idea for Greenspace was born. It was formed in October 2017 with the mission of starting, strengthening, and supporting community involvement surrounding park-based recreation.
The first order of business for Greenspace was buying the parks where the monuments stood. The city ordinance allowing for the transfer of the parks to Greenspace had to go through three readings by the city council, and on the third reading on December 20, 2017, the deal was consummated with a unanimous vote.
That night, Greenspace spun into action and coordinated the removal of the monuments. People lined the streets surrounding the cordoned off parks looking on in anticipation of a long-awaited moment. Resounding cheers and scattered tears rippled through the crowd. The statue of Forrest was the first to be removed.
Turner was there in the crowd that night and, as it was for many Memphians, seeing the statues come down meant a lot to him personally. Turner says his father grew up in Memphis near Health Sciences Park during the Jim Crow era. He says his dad remembers being shamed, afraid, and angry confronting the statue of Forrest every day. “The monument of Nathan B. Forrest was there for a reason,” Turner says. “It was there to say to the African Americans in the city ‘you’re still second class citizens.’ You can just imagine the call I made to my dad that night. I told him ‘Hey dad, I got it done.’ My father was able to live in the city after the last remnants of Jim Crow were removed. I was glad I was able to get it done before he left this earth.”
As it happened, the statues came down on his dad’s 74th birthday. He died six months later.
Turner says the statues should have never been erected in the first place because they sent a message of inferiority to people of color.
“If we pulled down the ‘whites only’ signs in public places, then why did we still have Confederate monuments up, which bolsters segregation?” Turner says. “The remnants of segregation and Jim Crow Memphis that still survived in those public parks was a problem.”
It was a very appropriate time to release Memphis from its past, he says.
Turner says it was important to get the monuments down before the world’s eyes turned to Memphis in April for the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, a commemorative event that brought hundreds of thousands of people to Downtown Memphis.
“Memphis is a great city and I think it can be even greater,” Turner says. “It was just time for us to move forward and put the past in the past.”
Now, anyone can enjoy the parks and their kids don’t have to play in the shadows of Confederate symbols, Turner says.
“If you put your finger on the pulse of Memphis, it’s beating, moving, and progressing,” Turner says. “It’s a good time for the city, and removing the monuments played a role, I believe.”