Ed Williams is well qualified to weigh in on the Forrest Park controversy. Not only is he the official Shelby County historian, he is a former member of the Shelby County Commission with a politician's sensitivity to this hot-button issue. At a dinner several years ago, Williams was seated next to former school board member and Memphis NAACP executive secretary Maxine Smith, and the issue of Forrest Park came up. He suggested their energies could more profitably be focused on schools. She smiled and said that nothing would generate as much publicity as Forrest.
Flyer: When did Forrest die and where was he buried?
Williams: He died in 1877 in Memphis, about a block and a half from the park on Union Avenue. He was buried in Elmwood in the family plot. What has happened over the years is that other descendants have been buried in the family plot and other monuments have encroached on it. So while technically the gravesite that Forrest and his wife were removed from could be looked at as being available, you couldn't get the coffins into the same spot even if they were intact and the family agreed to it.
When was Forrest moved?
In 1904. The decision to establish the park was agreed on by what was then the city board of aldermen in 1899.
Give us a historian's take on Forrest.
Forrest has enjoyed great public popularity at different times and great approbation at other times. Among Civil War buffs interested in the Confederate army, [Robert E.] Lee ranks number one, Stonewall Jackson number two, and Forrest number three. He is the only one of the Western theater Confederate generals looked upon with universally favorable appreciation of his military ability. Civil War site tours that come through our part of the country have at least an overnight stop in Memphis, including a visit to Forrest Park before going to visit the battlefields where he was involved. The most famous of those was Brice's Crossroads in Baldwin, Mississippi, where his small force defeated a large Union force.
What's your opinion?
I have never met anyone who ever claimed that they moved out of Memphis because of Forrest Park, Jefferson Davis Park, or Confederate Park. But nearly every day I meet or talk to someone from DeSoto County who covers me with complaints about Memphis and Shelby County. Quite frankly, it is a lose-lose proposition. No matter what you do you are going to make somebody unhappy. n