Notes on an Imagined Plaque

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Our motto is ‘always read the plaque’. It’s always worth stopping to see what person or event is being commemorated in stone and metal. The person being depicted is not always worthy. The story being told is not always true. Plaques often tell you more about the person who commissioned them than the historical figure that they are honoring. It’s still worth always reading the plaque, but it’s not enough to just read the plaque. If I had to nominate one person to write all the plaques in the world, my choice would be Nate DiMeo of ‘The Memory Palace’. He produced an episode about a statue and an imagined plaque in 2015 that just destroys me. It’s so good. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, and I want you to hear it.

Nate DiMeo:
‘Notes on an imagined plaque to be added to the statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest’, upon hearing that the Memphis City Council has voted to move it and the exhumed remains of General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their current location in a park downtown to the nearby Elmwood Cemetery.

Nate DiMeo:
First, it should be big – the plaque – not necessarily because there’s so much to say though there is so much to say, but big enough to be noticed on the side of this rather grand monument after they move it and the bodies beneath it across town to the cemetery. And not just big for the sake of bigness. It needs to stick out as something off. Something that disrupts the admirable balance of the statue currently so tasteful, regal even. This bronze man on this bronze horse, goatee, square jaw. You get it. You’ve seen it before, even if you haven’t seen it before. The statue faces north. The sculpture wanted Forrest to face south to better catch the light, but people complained. Said it would imply that the General was retreating, and he wasn’t a man who retreated. He surrendered once. But if the sculpture faced north, maybe people would forget that part, I guess.

Nate DiMeo:
So anyway, the plaque has to be big enough to catch your eye when you’re checking your cell phone or walking your dog or eating a chicken caesar salad from a plastic box on a bench. Whatever people are doing there in the cemetery and whatever they might do there in the future because that’s why we make these things, right Plaques, bronze men on bronze horses. We want people in the future to remember. But first, we want them to notice. So let’s think about material for this imagined plaque. Maybe the plaque should be garish, not intentionally ugly, not necessarily, but like titanium maybe. A patch of Frank Ghery futurism on this staid, stately old thing. It would catch the light and catch the eye in contrast to the northward facing brown-green man on his brown-green horse, or a great pigeon alit on his brown-green epaulet.

Nate DiMeo:
And I like that the Ghery of it all – the futurism – is not at all futuristic. It’s millennial. A decade from now, it’ll be dated, literally dated. Bilbao or Disney Hall or wherever will seem so late ’90s so 2000s and you’ll scoff, and I want that. I want this plaque to be fixed in time to let people know when it went up, let people know what was up at the time because that is the point here. The point of this plaque is to make sure that these future people realize that this lovely old statue wasn’t always old and wasn’t always here in the cemetery. And moreover, I want the reader standing there in the shadow cast by the lake somehow – still lamented, Nathan Bedford Forrest – on some future summer Sunday to know why it wound up in a park on the other side of town in the first place. Because memorials aren’t memories. They don’t just appear upon death. A letter of surrender signed in some farmhouse at the edge of some battlefield doesn’t come complete with a historic marker affixed to the door.

Nate DiMeo:
The monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest was put in that park downtown for a reason at a specific moment in time and at that time, General Forrest and Mrs. Forrest were already buried in Elmwood Cemetery, the same place the city council recently voted to put them. His body and her body were originally dug up from the ground because a group of prominent Memphians thought they were better off somewhere else. That was 1905. Forty years after the war, 30 years after Forrest’s death. They felt the city needed Nathan Bedford Forrest right then because they had seen that city fall from great heights.

Nate DiMeo:
Memphis had been left relatively unscathed by the war, but not by its outcome, not by the end of the slave trade that had been one of the economic and cultural pillars of the city. Without the slave market selling men and women and children, without the riverboats and crews and suppliers and dock workers sending them up and down the river, Memphis was hardly Memphis anymore. And then there was the yellow fever that had swept through the city some years before and killed so many and drove many more away. People who never returned after a mandatory evacuation and now it was the turn of the next century and the city was increasingly, let’s just say it, let’s just stop not saying things, increasingly black and increasingly tense. White businesses did not like competing with black businesses. Black people did not like being lynched.

Nate DiMeo:
This move to move Forrest started not long after Ida B. Wells, a Memphian too, had started writing rabble-rousing, boldly, bravely against lynching after her friend Thomas Moss was improperly imprisoned. After a fight between children over a game of marbles escalated until adults were threatening to burn down his store. And after Moss wound up being pulled from that prison and strung from a tree and Wells was threatened so much so often that she moved away, and the paper she had written for burned to the ground.

Nate DiMeo:
So wealthy white Memphis, at the beginning of the 1900s, found all of this unpleasant. So they raised money – $33,000 – not to rebuild that newspaper office or build the police force that would properly protect all of its citizens, but to make a monument to a man they thought best represented a Memphis they had lost. A man who had risen from nothing. A blacksmith’s boy who became a millionaire and then believed so strongly in the Confederate cause that he enlisted as a private, then went on to prove himself perhaps the most brilliant military man born on American soil even if he didn’t fight for America. Those are facts. That’s a true story, and they like what this story said about the American Dream, even if it wasn’t technically American, even if Forrest’s million was made by buying and selling human beings in selling cotton raised and picked and cleaned and packed by enslaved human beings. Even if the cause for which he employed that military genius was to ensure that men like him can rise up from nothing and make a million dollars buying and selling human beings and stealing their lives in their labor.

Nate DiMeo:
In 1905, they held a parade at the unveiling of the new statue and made speeches to honor the northward facing General. They said nothing of slavery. They said much about heritage and honor and chivalry. They said nothing of how Nathan Bedford Forrest had been the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Nothing of the terror it had wrought. Nothing of the assassinations or the lynchings. Nothing of how it sought to undermine and overthrow the nation’s political order. The nation that they celebrated there in Memphis in 1905 when they played the Star-Spangled Banner and Yankee Doodle Dandy right alongside Dixie. They might not have mentioned any of it, but they knew it, knew about Forrest and the Klan. They’d certainly read ‘The Klansmen’. It was flying off the shelves that year. A novel about heroic men hidden beneath bedsheets out to save white virtue from black barbarians.

Nate DiMeo:
It was a historical romance. That’s how it billed itself. That looked back longingly to a time not long before when people were still chivalrous, who’d stand up against barbarism and miscegenation and instability and stand up for order, private property. Who better to represent what they had lost in Nathan Bedford Forrest? They talked about his heroism in battle, though they didn’t talk about the battle of Fort Pillow when Forrest ordered the massacre of hundreds of American troops attempting to surrender, most of them former slaves. They talked about his faith instead. His strapping build and about their own hopes that future Memphians would gaze upon Nathan Bedford Forrest and be inspired. They even raised some extra cash for a skating rink so that the white children of Memphis could play nearby in the shadow of this great man and learn from his shining example though the bronze wouldn’t shine for long, when brown and green as the symbol of all that was good was exposed to the light of the sun and washed by the rain.

Nate DiMeo:
There is debate, there is always debate, about what the Klan meant when Forrest was its Wizard, about his intentions at Fort Pillow. They say Forrest repented his sins and his crimes on his deathbed. Should that be on the plaque? Should it note his regret? I say no. May it have ruined him. May it have corroded him like rain on bronze. May it have choked him like smoke from the crosses in homes and churches burnt by men who revered him decades and decades later. Revered him, at least in part because some influential Memphians decided they needed to revere him in this way in that park in 1905.

Nate DiMeo:
So the plaque should be big, but it can’t be big enough to say all that. Maybe it should just say – maybe they should all say, the many, many thousands of Confederate memorials and monuments and markers – that the men who fought and died for the CSA, whatever their personal reasons, whatever was in their hearts, did so on behalf of a government formed for the express purpose of ensuring that men and women and children could be bought and sold and destroyed at will. Maybe that should be enough.

Roman Mars:
But I want people to know about those Memphians in 1905. Who wanted people to remember Forrest and why. Who wanted a symbol to hold up and revere, to stand for what they valued most. I want people to know that that statue stood in downtown Memphis for 110 years, and to remember that memorials aren’t memories. They have motives. They are historical, they are not history itself. And I want them to know why it was moved. That in 2015, after Clementa Pinckney and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Tywanza Sanders and Ethel Lance and Susie Jackson and Cynthia Hurd and Myra Thompson and Daniel Simmons Sr. and DePayne Middleton-Doctor were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. There were people in Memphis who were done with symbols and ready to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest for good.

Roman Mars:
In 2016, the Tennessee Historical Commission ended up denying the Memphis City Council’s plan to move the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue from the park. It’s still there as of August 2017. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia have resulted in protests at the site of the statue and renewed calls by the public and city officials to have the monument removed.

Roman Mars:
‘The Memory Palace’ is produced by Nate DiMeo. You should subscribe to it and get all the old episodes. They’re short. They’re beautifully written and produced, and they’re what podcasting was invented for, as far as I’m concerned.

Comments (5)

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  1. One of, if not *the*, best episodes of The Memory Palace. I listened to it while I was walking, so I couldn’t have had a “driveway moment,” but I probably slowed down and inhaled deeply for those last minutes.

    DiMeo’s delivery is . . . I was going to write a slow burn, but he never really grows angry; but you can sense the fury as he closes in on the rhetorical quarry.

    It was timely when it was released, and is more timely now. I’ve been posting links on discussion groups and tweeting it out. Thanks for “bumping” it again.

  2. I remember hearing this on The Memory Palace, but it’s a good reminder.

    I’ve always read the plaques (my parents did it when we were kids and it stayed with me), but now I hear Roman’s voice in my head when I see one and feel a connection with all of the others reading the plaques.

    I’ve recently been visiting state parks and memorials here in Minnesota. The number of monuments dedicated to the immigrants and military/government representatives in the “Dakota War” are in the hundreds. Very few discuss why the violence occurred, how the government and military treated the Native Americans (not only in the Dakota War of 1862, but during other times), and how the Sioux Nation was betrayed by those they trusted. There are other stories in these monuments that have often been constructed by the victors of the battles or by the descendants of the immigrants in the battles that are not told. These stories, rarely told, much like those mentioned in this piece, are often an addendum, in one line, in smaller type at the bottom, after the recount of the heroism of the white people in an entire plaque above it.

    We do an injustice to history and ourselves to not realize the entire scope of an event or a time period.

  3. M Yoing

    I listened to the podcast and I agree that we don’t memorialize these kinds of people anymore- times have changed and as a society we have evolved. I just feel like allocating resources to take down every statue in America of this nature is a waste- aren’t we better off using this money for education? To better the present?

    A statue is an object, a nondescript visual. If you take down the plaque saying who it is, what is it then? Just some random historical figure on a horse or standing there. No one recognizes who it is bc that person is long dead.

    I understand the point but unless the community wants to remove it with their own resources, why waste another dime that could be better spent helping people, educating them and making a real difference?

    Europe doesn’t take down statues of long dead leaders who massacred and enslaved thousands for the sake of their country. They keep them, and even though people know what they did was wrong they know it was history- we are in a different time now. (Not counting the Lenin statues in the Ukraine which were propaganda)

  4. L. Hamburg

    This episode gave me goosebumps. The emotional freight is so raw and relevant. I loved how precisely he captured the purpose of coded language like “heritage” and “honor” that has always been prevalent in the South.

    It takes a lot of linguistic and cultural contortion to maintain the cognitive dissonance of considering oneself a “decent” human being while being passionate about defending the “right” to own and sell human beings, segregation, and legal dehumanization rituals.

    This episode helped me understand why Southern people of all varieties are able to decipher racist dogwhistling, but people in the North are more likely to accept superficial interpretations of rhetoric. My family is from North Carolina, and for a while it amazed me that people from where I am now (SF) couldn’t detect the racially incendiary components of current political discourse. I see that this has been going on for over 100 years. I was floored by this episode, thanks Roman for amplifying it.

  5. Francesca

    -Memorials aren’t memories, they have motives- thanks for the goosebumps, really one of the best episodes

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