The American Historian

Making History Public in Memphis: Creating a Historical Marker in a Methods Course

Timothy S. Huebner

In Memphis, where I teach, an existing historical marker at the site of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s “early home” became the impetus for a class project to produce a new, more accurate marker. The sign, erected by the Tennessee Historical Commission in 1955 at the rear parking lot of the historic Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Memphis, states simply that Forrest had a home at the site and that he became wealthy from his “business enterprises.”

Realizing that Forrest traded in enslaved people, I knew that the marker obscured the truth. But not until a few years ago, while conducting research on the history of the neighborhood as part of a task force for Calvary Church (where I am a member), did I discover that the sign suppressed more information than I thought. The sign marking Forrest’s home actually stood at the site of his antebellum slave mart. Because the same sources reveal the site of both his residence and his business, which were next to each other (at 85 and 87 Adams Street, respectively), those who placed the original 1955 historical marker knew what they were hiding. A new marker—telling a more complete story—was necessary.

Enter a group of fifteen scrappy undergraduates in my historical methods class.

In fall 2017, I was slated to teach “The Historian’s Craft,” a course that our department requires of all of its majors. While necessary, the course is not especially adored by students or faculty. It teaches the basics of historical methods: how to do research, read primary documents, assess the reliability of sources, and frame a research question. It offers a brief examination of different approaches to sources by reading excerpts from, for example, classics such as Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s study of the social origins of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Salem or Robert Darnton’s cultural history of the “great cat massacre” in eighteenth-century Paris.[1]The course also includes writing workshops, with an eye toward helping students produce a thoroughly researched, well-argued piece of historical writing, fully documented with properly formatted footnotes. Finally, all of the students present their research, subject to peer- and instructor-evaluation. It is an important course for all of our majors.

The course was transformed when, on the first day, I announced that we would learn the basics of the historical method while also writing the text for a new marker for the Forrest slave mart. What might have been regarded as a relatively humdrum enterprise turned into a larger cause. Our group would function not just as a class but as a research team with a common purpose. Setting up the course in this way took some preparation. I spent several days during the summer in local archives in an attempt to find sources that my students could use to study the history of slavery and the slave trade in Memphis. The sources, while not abundant, were certainly sufficient. With the assistance of Wayne Dowdy, the manager of Hooks Central Library’s History Department (just a few miles from my campus), and Vincent Clark, the Shelby County Archivist, I identified a number of topics that my students could research individually based on the available records.

Primary sources offered insights into a variety aspects of slavery and the slave trade in Memphis. City directories showed us who was involved in the trade, where they did business, and how these two things evolved over time. Property records revealed when and where slave dealers such as Forrest purchased the lots on which they sold the enslaved. Bills of sale revealed patterns about the gender, age, and price of those sold from the city’s slave yards. Census information gave us the aggregate numbers, as well as breakdowns of where the enslaved lived within the city. Newspapers, many of them accessible through digital archives (such as the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America” site), included ads for slave dealers, notices about runaways, and articles pertaining to the role of the enslaved in the city. The class also benefited from access to a partial set of the Bolton Dickins slave trading firm’s business records, located in the Hooks Central Library, which included a list of the purchase and sale prices for scores of enslaved people. Finally, the handful of published memoirs and interviews with African Americans sold in Memphis provided important firsthand accounts of the trade. As we got further into the project, students and I discovered even more digital resources, including the records of the Memphis “police blotter,” found on the Shelby County Archives website, which helped one student assess the extent to which the city’s antebellum police force regulated the enslaved population.

“The course was transformed when...I announced that we would learn the basics of the historical method while also writing the text for a new marker for the Forrest slave mart.”

Writing this history from these sources proved eye-opening for students. As most members of my department, as in the profession at large, consider themselves to be cultural historians, my students are used to viewing history as an exercise in reading and analyzing readily-available texts. They soon learned, though, that studying the history of slavery does not allow for this particular mode of inquiry. Instead, exploring the buying and selling of enslaved people in 1850s Memphis requires actually going to the physical archives or spending considerable time working with digital resources, with the aim of finding and piecing together various threads of evidence to construct an as-of-yet-unwritten story. For students born and raised in the age of the internet, the idea that they could not find this history online—or even in books in the library—proved more than a bit daunting. This sort of painstaking social history research was a fresh concept. If my students learned nothing else, it was that historians at times engage in considerable labor to reconstruct the past.

After students had researched their topics, written and submitted their research papers, and presented their findings, we devoted the last two class periods of the semester to writing a text for a new historical marker at the site of the Forrest slave mart. Our goal was to explain what had happened at that site, as well as to situate that information in the broader context of the slave trade in Memphis and the American South.

We first identified the major themes of our collective research, and then, after considering a few sets of guidelines for writing historical markers written by various historical societies, proceeded to write a text. I offered some draft language taken from an op-ed piece that I had just published about our project in the local paper, in which I described some of the things we had learned about Forrest’s slave trading business.[2]We then edited and discussed what specific language might be appropriate on a marker that was likely to reach a popular audience of passersby on a downtown sidewalk. After much discussion—including spirited debate among students about which points were important enough to be included on the front, rather than the back, of the marker—we settled on a text. We included a physical description of the slave yard, taken from a 1923 interview with ex-slave Horatio Eden, as well as our finding that Forrest had engaged in the illegal importation of Africans in 1859.

Because I had secured a small grant from the Tennessee Civil War Heritage Area for our work, I was then able to enlist the help of a local advisory board, composed of colleagues who are experts on African American history and the history of slavery. These fellow historians convened after the end of the semester and made a few additional changes to the text.

With the purely academic aspect of our work complete, it was time to focus on actually placing the marker. As a member of the congregation, I knew that Calvary Church was in the process of purchasing the property where the marker would be erected, adjacent to the church parking lot that had once been the site of the slave mart. And I knew that if the marker went up on church property, the church would need to approve the language. So, after our advisory board had weighed in, I presented our proposal to the church’s governing body, with the support of Calvary’s priest Rev. Scott Walters, which promptly approved the text.

The last piece of our effort involved the National Park Service (NPS). For the past few years, the NPS had taken an interest in sites of national significance in Memphis. In 2016, the NPS worked with the local chapter of the NAACP to erect a marker commemorating the Memphis massacre of 1866, a horrific, bloody episode in which white mobs in the aftermath of the Civil War terrorized and murdered at least 46 African Americans. In 2017, moreover, the NPS collaborated with the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis in erecting a marker for lynching victim Ell Persons, who was burned and dismembered by a mob on the outskirts of town in 1917. It was the first marker erected for a lynching victim in Shelby County.

Because NPS had a history of working in Memphis, enlisting their support was one of the least difficult steps in the process. Tim Good, the Superintendent of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, and an eager collaborator, had worked on the other NPS affiliated projects in Memphis. He partnered with us by paying for the marker through NPS’s Lower Mississippi Delta fund. He also approved our text, without any changes, which further affirmed the rigorous research and careful writing that we had done.

After the semester ended, and as the NPS was doing its part to fabricate our marker, I continued to work with a handful of students from the class. These students continued to do research on our project as part of an independent study. Three students and a church member (who was old enough to be the students’ grandmother) spent several weeks working with the Shelby County Archives to locate all of the names that they could of the people who had been sold at 87 Adams. Forrest operated his slave trading business at the site between 1854 and 1860, after which he had sold the property to another group of traders.

Finding the names of these enslaved people became important at the last stage of the project because I wanted the unveiling of the new marker to occur within the context of a “service of remembrance and reconciliation” at Calvary Church. That is, we would not simply gather around the marker outside, say a few words, and go home. Instead, the clergy at Calvary and I planned a service inside the church that included a scripture reading, music, reflections (including one by a student in our class), and a “litany of prayers for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation.” We would do all of this on April 4, 2018, a significant day in Memphis as it marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in our city.

The most moving and powerful moment of the service came with the reading of the names and ages of the 72 enslaved people whom we had found through careful research in the archives. A packed house of at least six hundred people attended the service in the church, and everyone stood in reverence during the reading of the names, after a few in the crowd began standing spontaneously. It was an unexpected and dramatic end to our efforts to research the slave trade in Memphis. At the conclusion of the service, the assembled crowd went outside for brief remarks, after which we unveiled the new marker, jointly sponsored by Calvary Church, Rhodes College (my institution), and the NPS.

For students, the experience was a profound lesson in making history public. The work began with traditional academic research in local archives, continued through our collaborative partnerships with Calvary Church and the NPS, and culminated in the personally transformative experience of researching the names that were read at the service. All in all, it was an experience that none of us are soon likely to forget.

Text of the new marker

From 1854 to 1860, Nathan Bedford Forrest operated a profitable slave trading business at this site. In 1826, Tennessee had prohibited bringing enslaved people into the state for the purpose of selling them. As cotton and slavery grew in importance, the legislature repealed the ban in 1855. Starting that year, Memphis emerged as a regional hub for the slave trade. In addition to the more than 3000 enslaved people who lived and worked in Memphis at the time, thousands more flowed in and out of the city, as traders and their agents brought a steady supply of human cargo into town via roads, river, and rail. In 1854, Forrest purchased this property on Adams, between second and Third, just east of an alley behind Calvary Episcopal Church. Most slaves were sold at lots like this one before ending up on plantations in the Mississippi Delta or further south. Horatio Eden, sold from Forrest's yard as a child, remembered the place as a "square stockade of high boards with two room Negro houses around...We were all kept in these rooms, but when an auction was held or buyers came, we were brought out and paraded two or three times around a circular brick walk in the center of the stockade. The buyers would stand nearby and inspect us as we went by, stop us, and examine us. Much of the slave trade in Memphis occurred on Adams Avenue. Located in the heart of town and connecting the riverfront steamboat landing to the Memphis and Charleston Railroad line, the street offered easy access to buyers and sellers. In 1855, the city directory listed eight slave dealers, including Forrest, five of whom were located on Adams. While his business practices resembled those of other traders in town, Forrest uniquely engaged in the buying and selling of Africans illegally smuggled into the United States, in violation of an 1808 congressional ban. Several sources confirm that in 1859 Forrest sold at least six newly-arrived Africans "direct from the Congo" at his yard. Slave trading proved a growth industry, and by 1860 the number of slaver dealers in Memphis had increased to ten, including six with addresses on Adams. In that year, Forrest sold this property and moved one block east, where he expanded his operations, while another group of slave dealers took ownership of this lot. Secession and war disrupted the slave trading business, and in 1861 Forrest went off the fight for the Confederacy. In the decades after the Civil War, many white southerners chose to portray Forrest as a military hero, thus excusing or ignoring Forrest's buying and selling of human beings.

Author

Timothy S. Huebner, the Irma O. Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College, is the author of Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism (2016).

Notes

[1]Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974); Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984).

[2]Timothy S. Huebner, “Confronting the True History of Forrest the Slave Trader,” Commercial Appeal, Dec. 8, 2017.