A Short History of the Jefferson Davis Statue in Confederate Park

Posted by John Branston on Fri, Feb 8, 2013 at 1:34 PM

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 on Union Avenue. How and why? I wondered in light of the ongoing controversy over Confederate-named parks. What's in a name?

Honorary names are something of a Memphis specialty. I drove from my house to "Frances Crain" (N. Avalon) to "Sally Wallace Hook Parkway" better known as East Parkway to the McWherter Library (a nod to former governor Ned) at University of Memphis and the Special Collections department on the fourth floor, where curator Ed Frank kindly pulled the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper clippings on Jefferson Davis and his statue.

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 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 1956-1964. 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 written by white men. (The Commercial Appeal's archives are not part of the UM collection).

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's birth. Henry said Davis's "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., "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 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 emnities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our nation," Carter said.

This week 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.

Comments (40)

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In a city that is majority black why does the local “alternative” press not have a progressive, intellectual black writer? When it comes to issues of race we over and over again are served up steamers from outdated past their sell date white male writers from the burbs. A Memphis newspaper without a fair number of black writers is suspect in my mind. If this newspaper was a beacon of truth a real progressive newspaper it would have a full throttle defense for changing the names of the parks for national or global civil rights figures. Desmond Tutu Park, Mahatma Gandhi Park, Barack Obama Park think globally. But that would require we stop fighting battles around race and class.

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Posted by FDR on 02/08/2013 at 3:19 PM

Bruce, We need a FLYER contest to name the parks !!!!

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Posted by tomguleff on 02/08/2013 at 3:36 PM

I would recommend to anyone that is interested in the names of these parks to check out the national register of historic places (or something like that). I think you will find that the city can put up a sign but they can't change the official name on the register, and they can't disturb the monuments and plaques. Kinda makes you wonder if the park names are worth all the controversy and bad feeling on both sides, Walter Bailey not withstanding.
I watched an interview of Councilman Lowery and it was pretty clear that he wasn't aware of the significance of a park being on the register and changed his position to "what's in a name".

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Posted by Drift Boat on 02/08/2013 at 3:54 PM

As long as the racist iconography is taken out of the park and it begins to be referred to locally as something different than KKK Founders Park, its pretty irrelevant what some official paper in the deep corners of a filing cabinet in Nashville says it is.

If Nashville passes a law that says Memphians will now ride unicycles to work everyday, and the people of Memphis refuse to do it, short of them sending in the national guard to enforce it, the law becomes irrelevant so long as the city government and the majority of citizens in Memphis collectively refuse to enforce it/follow it.

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Posted by Count Dracula on 02/08/2013 at 4:35 PM

I am a Son of a Confederate veteran Member, My great great uncle PVT George Washington Corbett died in the Battle of Hilton Head Island in 1864, just before the union Army Under General Sherman began the first Lighting war ever known
to the world. Burning, Robbery, Rape, Pillage and total destruction of the
southern Family and its way of life. Just like Hitler did in 1938-1945 in WWII.
I will never spend another dime in Shelby County,I suggest a boycott of
all Americans who know the this history do the same. we are not the Soviet Union yet!!!

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Posted by PUNKY on 02/08/2013 at 4:44 PM

Times change. Names change. I would like to see the name of Tom Lee Park changed to Arthur Lee Park. This mostly forgotten 20th century black musician / songwriter came from Memphis and is buried in Memphis and he deserves to get more credit than he has been given. What? I think that we could all get together now (sorry bout that) if we named our parks, roads, buildings, and waterways after our great Memphis musicians, irregardless of race, etc, -- and rejoice in their accomplishments.

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Posted by Donald Hargrove on 02/08/2013 at 6:05 PM

Umm, OK now we know about the Jefferson statue. As the Flyer sees fit to give history lessons (thank you Jesus we did not have a Hitler statue for John to explain) Can you please tell me how I - as a black man - ended up in Memphis and what role the President of the Confederacy may have had in that effort. Thanks for the lesson!

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Posted by Chained Hand and Foot on 02/08/2013 at 6:15 PM

FDR- so "we stop fighting battles around race and class" by requiring newspapers to hire journalists based not entirely on the quality of their resume or portfolio but the color of their skin? And here I thought the goal was a society where value was determined by effort, skill and ability and not on a quota- silly me.

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Posted by barf on 02/08/2013 at 7:00 PM

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a military genius.....let the name stay as it is & let this great man rest in peace.

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Posted by Sky Blue on 02/08/2013 at 8:34 PM

A little more than a year into his first term as Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder said we are "a nation of cowards" when it comes to having meaningful discussions on race in America. Mr. Holder received a lot of heat for that statement because the Neo-Dixiecrats and their Rabid Right Wing Media Bullhorns scored cheap political points by zeroing in on the first part of the quote and completely ignoring the rest of it.

Although the Confederate Parks Re-Naming controversy in Memphis has certainly ignited heated, historical debates about slavery, race, and the "War of Northern Aggression", I do not know how meaningful these debates have or will become since they are clouded by tribalism, a very powerful human instinct. For me, it has raised an interesting set of questions. If I were a white male from the South with ancestors who fought in this war because their homeland was invaded, would I try to understand the deep-rooted sadness, pain, frustration, and anger that has been and, for the foreseeable future, will be on the other side of "the color line"?? Or, would I take offense to what I perceive to be unwarranted, unending bitterness and hatred being directed at me for something I had no part in?

The heated debates are great, as long as they eventually morph into meaningful, healing conversations, where each side tries to understand the other point of view.

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Posted by Bakeman90 on 02/08/2013 at 10:13 PM

I am with Mr Guleff on this. We need a memorial for all those men on either side of the Civil War who refused to fight. Certainly the Sons of the Confederacy can appreciate those Yankees who refused to invade the South and kill our granddaddies. And those Southerners who evaded the draft as not to prolong the sins of slavery would be seen as heroes by the anti-slavery or anti-sin types among us. It could be a park to appeal to everyone.
We can call in Deserters Park or Dodger Park, or maybe a stadium.

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Posted by crackoamerican on 02/09/2013 at 1:14 AM

Bakeman, I think it is pretty easy and safe for the chief law enforcement of the United States Government to call anyone anything he wants. What are they going to do about it? I think he is confused about the identity of the real coward here.

Being an outsider, it is easy for me to see as long as there is political capital to be gained in Memphis from pretending the American Civil War and Slavery are current events, there will never be any rational conversation about it here. So Memphis will remain, in my opinion, the most backward major city in the country.

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Posted by GWCarver on 02/09/2013 at 10:18 AM

GWC-His point was that most Americans do not want to have "that conversation" about race because it will be extremely uncomfortable and will inevitably bring up old, painful wounds that have not been healed since the end of the Civil War. Clearly, many of the present-day race issues stem from our unwillingness to effectively deal with the traumas of the past with regard to rampant racial violence and government-enforced discrimination in this great nation.

Saying that he is a coward hiding behind the power of the Federal Government completely misses his point and my own. Of course, if that is you intent, I understand.

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Posted by Bakeman90 on 02/09/2013 at 12:36 PM


It's true. The conversation would contain lots of information regarding the endemic Pre-Columbian slavery in North America, as well as lots of inforation about the European slaves held by both Europeans and Africans both prior to and during this era, both outside and inside North America.

Lots of information. Very uncomfortable discussion.

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Posted by Honey Nuts on 02/09/2013 at 2:59 PM


Yes, there is more to it. Al Sharpton has a history of railroading innocent white people with total impunity and complete lack of criticism from the mainstream press. Last year he went down to Florida to whip up support in order to railroad the "White Hispanic" and lied though his teeth about there being no real investigation by the police in Sanford. After marching there and inciting huge quantities of racial hatred for Zimmerman, he unexpectedly left Sanford even though he had promised to stay through the weekend, and was spotted hanging with Eric Holder during that time. I believe it was the Monday after Zimmerman was indicted that Holder had Sharpton up to D.C. for a big photo-op, and it was obvious to the most casual observer what they were celebrating.

So, Holder has already initiated the conversation about race from his end, IMO. It certainly is clear to me where he stands.

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Posted by GWCarver on 02/09/2013 at 3:05 PM

GWC- In my opinion, "so called" black leaders who adamantly refuse to address the root cause of black-on-black crime are like Freddie in the cartoon series "A Pup Named Scooby Doo". They consistently, and wrongly, blame the aptly named bully, Red Herring (read "the white man", "poverty", "systemic racism", etc.). every time. And, for the record, I believe the root cause of any crime is the criminal, period.

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Posted by Bakeman90 on 02/09/2013 at 7:10 PM

The parks already have a name. If you want to honour someone else, get another park. It's that simple. Street names, park names...these are things that have history and you have no right to rename them.
By the way, I keep seeing references to the Founder of the KKK. That was not in Memphis, but 6 boys in Pulaski, Tenn. after the war. The gross ignorance of the media and many spokespeople is very embarrassing for Memphis.

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Posted by Brett Moffatt on 02/09/2013 at 10:12 PM

Has it already been suggested that a nice statuary addition of Terrence "T-Rex" Yarbrough riding up behind the General might appease a majority of folks. Slavers Park.

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Posted by CL Mullins on 02/10/2013 at 12:21 PM

Why don't we serve history correctly. Why not put up a monument of General Grant, sword drawn chasing Forest out of Memphis, Yes, Forest fled Memphis in the middle of the night with nothing but his night clothes on. Now that would be historically correct; I would have no problem with it.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/10/2013 at 1:51 PM


I agree we should serve history correctly.

A usual, let history show this is just more OTP bullshit.

(Up to 26 bullshit call-outs, old fellow)

Show me.

Oh, hell. Never mind.

The incident you refer to was in 1862 when Forrest's men snuck into Memphis and ran the Union General Washburn out of his house, and into the street, in his nightclothes. I do believe there was at one time a street (or alley) in Memphis named "General Washburn's Escape Alley". Don't know if that name still exists.

The whole incident is described in "The Standard History of Memphis: from a study of the original sources." Pages 359-360 for your easy look-up. Apparently, his fellow Union generals got a kick out of it. Something about General Hurlburt saying "I couldn't keep Forrest out of Memphis and General Washburn can't keep him out of his bedroom! Something like that.

Interestingly enough, the book is still in print and is available from Amazon. If you order today, Free Super Saver Shipping is included!

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/10/2013 at 3:46 PM


You are correct and I am wrong.

But, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that Memphis African Americans are the only place where there is turmoil over honoring Forest.

Selma, Al had a monument, a bust of Forest in a park. Someone stole the head of the bust and it has never been found. The confederate societies decided to build a larger bust of Forest to replace it, however, the Selma Council voted 4-0 with 2 abstentions to stop all work on the monument. Now some mining company out of Virgina is suing the Selma City Council. They are still in the process of figuring out who owns the cemetary, private parties or the city.

So, trying to say that Memphis is the only place that is raising a ruckus over Forest is untrue. Feel free to google this.

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Posted by oldtimeplayer on 02/10/2013 at 4:24 PM


I really don't care one way or the other, frankly. And I don't remember saying that Memphis has a hammerlock on all issues Forrest.

I can't figure out how my life is going to change if the name and statue either stay up, disappear or go somewhere else.

Personally, I think this whole controvery makes the Memphis City Council look look small and petty attacking symbols rather than realities, but they are not my City Council. I don't expect my opinion to have much value to Memphians, nor does it have to.

If makes you and the City Council feel better, rename the parks, move the statue and the graves, and lets get on to the next racial grievance, of which there seems to be an inexaustable inventory on que.

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/10/2013 at 5:46 PM

If you've been to Nashville, their monument to Forrest makes our park look like nothing.

Personally, I don't care about the parks or the symbols. If it's necessary to remove them, remove them.

This whole controversy is way overblown if you ask me, but if that's what the city wants, let them do it. The sooner we get to the point where we can not harbor ill will toward groups of people because of their ancestors, the better we are.

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Posted by GroveReb84 on 02/10/2013 at 6:26 PM


Yes, but not too quickly, if you please.

We need the City Council to keep fanning the flames (I hope for more Wendy Thomas articles).

The more ill-will they can create for themselves in Nashville, so much the better.

Come on, CC. Give us a daily TV dose of how the legislature is interfering in Memphis business and they should keep their nose out.

Show some leadership, Myron!

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Posted by ArlingtonPop on 02/10/2013 at 6:35 PM

GR, I don't think changing the park names or getting rid of the statues is going to accomplish anything significant in swaying the views of the politicians downtown. They don't hate us because of our ancestors, IMO, but they do hate them, too.

OTP, if you want another place to voice your opinions, try the left wing mecca of reddit.com, click on politics, pick a username and password, and fire away. Email address is optional.

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Posted by GWCarver on 02/10/2013 at 8:08 PM
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