photograph by Justin Fox Burks
The statue of Jefferson Davis was erected in Confederate Park in downtown Memphis in 1964, more than half a century after the more famous equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest was placed on Union Avenue. How and why this happened sheds some light on the ongoing controversy over Confederate-named parks.
To find out, I visited the Special Collections of the McWherter Library at the University of Memphis, where curator Ed Frank kindly pulled the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper clippings for me.
The statue story is an interesting little yarn. Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, lived in Memphis from 1875 to 1878. The drive to honor the “forgotten man” with “a magnificent bronze statue” began in 1956, although the concept was approved by political boss E.H. Crump before he died in 1954.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, later assisted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were the driving force. The first donation was $26. City officials blessed the project in 1962, when only $1,138 had been raised, but they changed the location from Jefferson Davis Park on Riverside Drive to Confederate Park on the bluff. It took eight years to raise the $17,473 needed for the eight-foot statue and 11-foot pedestal. These were not the days when wealthy benefactors simply wrote a check as they do today.
“This is a matter of pride for Memphis,” said Mrs. Harry Allen (as the newspaper at that time referred to women), leader of the fund drive. “Memphis is the only major city in the South that does not have a statue of this great man.”
The Press-Scimitar dutifully reported the progress of the fund drive from 1956 to 1964. The unveiling seems not to have been tied to any Civil War centennial observation, and if it drew any public protest it was not noted by the afternoon newspaper, which, of course, was produced and mostly written by white men. (The Commercial Appeal’s archives are not part of the UM collection.)
It took eight years to raise the $17,473 needed for the eight-foot statue and 11-foot pedestal. These were not the days when wealthy benefactors simply wrote a check as they do today.
This was probably because Memphians, black and white, had bigger things to worry about than statues and symbolism. City schools were desegregated in 1961. Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking to tens of thousands in Washington, D.C., and millions on television. The temper of the times can be felt by reading the front pages of The Commercial Appeal, gathered in a fine collection and coffee table book in 1991 on its 150th birthday.
From 1962: “Two Men Are Dead in Campus Rioting After Meredith Is Escorted to Dormitory; Soldiers Try to Restore Order at Ole Miss.” From 1963: “Sniper Assassinates Kennedy in Dallas.” From 1964: “Three Bodies Found by FBI Believed Rights Workers.”
In 1968, the Press-Scimitar reported that “Negro” Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the state NAACP president, protested the closing of state offices on the anniversary of Davis’ birth. Henry said Davis’ “only claim to infamy was based on his philosophy of human enslavement of black people by white people.” In 1970, the paper reported that Memphis Sesquicentennial Inc. planned to honor both Davis and Robert R. Church Sr., the “South’s First Negro Millionaire.” The Davis statue was lighted. Church got a plaque and a park named for him at Beale and Fourth. The “one of you, one of us” process continues to this day.
Davis, stripped of his rights after the Civil War, died in 1889. He was gone but not forgotten. His birthday, July 3rd, was a legal holiday in Mississippi and ten other states and known as the Confederate Memorial Day. The exact name, number, and dates of such observances today is a morass into which I do not plan to fall. Suffice it to say that Davis’ rights were officially restored in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, a Southerner.
“Our nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our nation,” Carter said.
In February, the City Council, provoked by state lawmakers in Nashville, voted to rename Confederate Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park with placeholder names until a committee can come up with permanent ones.