“Yesterday (Dec. 20), I celebrated the 73rd birthday of my father in a park where he was Intimidated to walk, and would dare not sit down.”
Those were the first words Van Turner, a member of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, uttered as president of Memphis Greenspace, Inc. – the suddenly high-profile non-profit group responsible for the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue in Health Sciences Park just 12 hours before.
The morning was cold, wet and windy as Turner, accompanied by his board of directors, stood in front of the base that long supported the Forrest statue. The night had yielded the removal of three monuments saluting Confederate-era figures, including Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, whose bust no longer resides downtown in Memphis Park.
And it all had come about within a few hours of a crucial City Council vote and Mayor Jim Strickland signing a sales agreement transferring ownership of Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park (Fourth Bluff) to Turner and the Green Space, Inc. group.
“(The) Sons of Confederate Veterans looks at history, looks at the past,” Turner said. “I respect that, but I think it’s time to move forward.”
There are varying conceptions of moving forward. Some Republican lawmakers already have made it known that they want a probe of the Strickland administration’s move, with assertions that it violated state laws. Meanwhile, House Assistant Minority Leader Joe Towns and other members of the Shelby County Democratic delegation scheduled a news conference for Friday morning to show support for the decision to sell the two parks so that the Confederate monuments could be removed.
In the crowd as Turner spoke Thursday morning was Lee Millar with Sons of Confederate Veterans. Expect a showdown in court over the statue’s removal, Millar has said.
Questions abound, including many about Green Space, Inc., which incorporated in October. Green Space envisions the transfer of other parks with the idea of revitalizing them – adding amenities such as playgrounds and making other moves for safety and security.
“This is just the beginning,” Turner said.
The buzz about the statues’ removal resounded throughout Memphis and far beyond, with events unfolding quickly on Wednesday after the Memphis City Council voted for the immediate removal of the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis. Within minutes of the decision, crews were in position to began the process of uprooting and moving the monuments.
It took more than three hours to pull the Forrest statue from the concrete pedestal it rested upon, eventually being hoisted aloft to cheers and some jeers at 9:01 p.m.
The goal was to have the statues taken down by April 4, 2018 – the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at the Lorraine Motel, now the city of the National Civil Rights Museum. The city has a major campaign commemorating the historic event.
On August 19, protesters attempted to cover the Forrest statue with a tarp, which led to police intervention. The ensuing struggle resulted in the arrest of seven people, most charged with disorderly conduct. The charges later were dropped.
The path that led to Turner being at Health Sciences Park on Thursday included the Tennessee Historical Commission denial of the city’s waiver request to move the statues in October. Along the way, other legal efforts had not produced the statue’s removal. Negotiations did not get the job done either.
Strickland had maintained that the city would make the legal moves necessary to get the statues removed and that commitment led to the deal with Green Space, Inc. co.
The non-profit group bought both Health Sciences Park and Fourth Bluff Park from the City of Memphis for $1,000 each. There are limitations on what can be built on the parklands. As of now, Green Space is paying Memphis to continue to use police resources for protection, with plans to transition to private security.
Turner approached the city about an idea to remove the statue. “This is not a shady deal. This is a legal deal,” he said.
Strickland signed the ordinance sealing the deal of the sale on Wednesday night.
“I think we are well prepared for any legal battles which may arise and again,” Strickland said. “We’ll see what the courts say.”
As for the removed statues, Turner said, “I’m sure there are those that want those statues and want those statues perhaps at a civil war memorial and we are open to that transfer.”
Turner said he doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know where the statues are. It is, he said, time to focus on the problems at hand, including crime and poverty.