The city of Memphis filed a petition in Davidson County Chancery Court on Monday. Officials asked for judicial review of the Tennessee Historical Commission’s denial of a request to remove a statue of Confederate-era leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from Health Sciences Park.
Forrest was a slave trader, Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader who became influential in the city’s growth after the Civil War. Cities have tried to remove Confederate monuments following the racially motivated massacre of nine people at a black church in South Carolina and a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Protesters have called for the statue’s removal, saying it represents racism and bigotry. City leaders have discussed ways to relocate the statue of Forrest and move his remains, which are buried under the monument.
Supporters of keeping the statue in place say it represents an important part of history. The Sons of Confederate Veterans in Memphis has said such monuments do not represent white supremacy and it would be a mistake to remove them.
On Oct. 13, the Nashville-based historical commission denied the city’s request for a waiver to Tennessee’s Heritage Protection Act, which limits the removal or changing of historical memorials on public property. The waiver would allow the city to relocate the statue.
State lawmakers in 2013 passed the act to prevent the removal or relocation of statues or monuments honoring U.S. wars located on public property. The 2013 act also says no statue of a historical military figure may be renamed or rededicated.
In 2016, the General Assembly changed the act. It now prohibits the removal or relocation of any statue or memorial honoring a historic conflict, historic entity or historic figure from public property.
City attorney Allan Wade argues in the petition that Memphis filed its waiver request under the original act, which does not say that statues of historical military figures can’t be removed — only that they can’t be renamed or rededicated. The city claims the waiver request filed March 7, 2016, came before changes made to the act to include language applicable to the Forrest statue went into effect.
“By its express terms the 2013 act does not prevent a Historical Military Figure Memorial from being relocated, removed, altered or otherwise disturbed as long as it is not renamed or rededicated, “ the petition states.
The commission’s waiver denial was illegal and arbitrary, Wade argues. The petition seeks a decree from the court ordering that the city has the right to remove or relocate the Forrest statue.
Commission Executive Director E. Patrick McIntyre Jr. declined to comment.