By David Paulsen
[Episcopal News Service] A previously little-known piece of history just outside the doors of Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee, is being brought to light as the church prepares to dedicate a historical marker at the pre-Civil War site of the Forrest Slave Mart.
An existing historical marker on Calvary’s block notes that it once was the home of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a 19th-century businessman and Confederate general, but the marker fails to convey the more disturbing context: Forrest was a slave trader, and from 1854 to 1860 he operated a slave mart on property that the church now owns and uses as a parking lot.
The Rev. Scott Walters, rector at Calvary, called it “chilling” to think of the inhumanity that once occurred every day on land located just beyond the church wall behind him when he stands at the pulpit every Sunday. But the effort to research the full history of that block has been infused with a spirit of reconciliation as much as an interest in revealing ugly truths.
“We don’t want it to be a divisive thing but a truth that can be told that can lead to some healing,” Walters said in an interview with Episcopal News Service.
The new historical marker, to be dedicated April 4 as Memphis marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the city, is the product of a research project led by history professor Timothy Huebner, who is a member of Calvary Episcopal Church.
“It’s not that the existing marker isn’t factually accurate. … It just leaves out a lot,” Huebner told ENS. “And so that’s what we’re trying to do. We are trying to tell some of what has been left out that has to do with the history of that site.”
An organization called Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, whose mission is to accurately tell the history of racial violence in and around the city, first drew attention to the existing historical marker in 2015. Organizers held a prayer service calling for the sign to be changed to make clear that Forrest’s “business enterprises” were the selling of humans.