Opinion » Editorial

Restoring History

Memphis should take a cue from Helena, Arkansas, in dealig with its civil war past.



In this issue's cover story, "Looking South," Chris Herrington writes about the way in which Helena, Arkansas, a nearby city with a pedigree as authentically Southern as our own, is dealing with its treatment of its Civil War history.

It has adopted what seems to be the obvious expedient of broadening the subjects of its commemoration to include both sides of its Civil War history. As Herrington puts it, Helena is one Southern city where "the hard work of severing a Southern view of history from a Confederate one is finally being done."

That's a subtle but critical distinction, one that means overlooked events and personalities connected to the area and to the actual history of the war in Helena — such as Freedom Park, which commemorates Helena's and the Union Army's role in processing toward new lives thousands of freed slaves — were given their due. Cities like Charleston and Richmond have done something similar, rescuing lost symbols of the Union cause and assigning them at least parity with familiar Confederate emblems.

Such actions perform two services at once. Yes, they update an obsolete historical consciousness and bring it more into line with contemporary realities and sensibilities. But, beyond that, their primary point is to present the actual history, the whole history, and nothing but the history of what happened in the war. It is a matter of rescuing the past for the sake of those of us who live in the present, as well as those who will come after. And it explains, as true histories always do, not only what happened and how but a great deal about why it happened.

Things of that sort were already happening here before the recent flare-up over the appearance and removal of controversial new signage at Forrest Park and the Memphis City Council's subsequent decision to change the name of that park and two others with Confederate connotations. In recent years, Calhoun Avenue, originally named after one of the more famous (or infamous) advocates of nullification in the Old South, was redesignated in honor of G.E. Patterson, a luminary of the New South and a pillar of the Church of God in Christ, which was headquartered here. And a one-mile stretch of Linden Avenue was, just this past year, renamed for Martin Luther King Jr.

Again, in both cases, historical accuracy was served even as sensitive semiotic matters were being corrected. As Herrington observes, the downtown parks formerly named Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park had little if any connection to their nomenclature. The council's action in opening up the naming process allows timely and corrective action. As for the park where a statue of General Forrest and his and his wife's gravesite are to be found, the site is clearly large enough to accommodate other memorials and other testimonies. The name and memory of Ida B. Wells have been suggested. The idea of a "Civil War Park," with other monuments and historical markers giving a balanced and realistic view, has been talked about.

In this instance, Memphis should seriously consider "looking South," and take a cue from Helena, by expanding rather than contracting the public commemoration of our historical heritage.

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