The Whole Truth

March 15th, 2018

Just over two years ago, a group met in a forgotten little park to pray that we remember all of what actually happened on that site and in this city, and that we mark that history.

On April 4, we will see – quite literally – a sign that those prayers are being answered.

As interest grows in uncovering things about our past that have been buried, forgotten or ignored, those who would keep things the way they are call that exercise changing history.

It’s not changing history, it’s acknowledging it.

And that’s the truth.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, March 16, 2018, and in The Memphis News, March 17-23, 2018

Forrestsearlyhome Copy


Truth is the truth. It isn’t inconvenient, inconsistent or incomplete. It isn’t uncomfortable or unpleasant and certainly not untrue.

But what we’ve made of the truth is all of those things.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a strange little corner park downtown representative of both our national and local manipulation of truth to create our civic mythology, of how we carefully choose from a palette of facts to paint favorable pictures and sculpt monuments, meticulously avoiding the unfavorable, hoping to bury it under the weight of time and tradition.

The bus shelter on one side of the corner says “Columbus Park,” but the eponymous bronze statue of the explorer has been removed to Marquette Park in east Memphis, home to the annual Memphis Italian Festival. Columbus is credited with discovering America, which would come as a great surprise to the indigenous people already on the Caribbean island when he hit the beach, and to the Norse seamen who actually landed on what is now North America some 500 years before Chris, and to the other Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who we named this baby after.

On the other side is a marker noting that this was once the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s home, telling us when he came to Memphis “where his business enterprises made him wealthy.” The Tennessee Historical Commission didn’t bother noting that primary among those “business enterprises” was trading in human beings. Nowhere on the marker or on the corner is any reference to the marketing and warehousing of slaves that took place just steps away.

But on April 4, a new marker will go up and the whole truth will be told.

I first wrote about that corner when a group of people as diverse as the city gathered there in 2015 for an “Interfaith Prayer Service For Truth” asking that our whole history be told, that we share the pain of our past and the responsibility for our present and future so that healing can begin. They read the names of victims of lynching in Shelby County, the most in Tennessee, and asked that they not simply be remembered but the sites marked, the truth noted.

Rabbis, Imams, ministers, priests and pastors prayed with Memphians black and white and rainbow, men and women, young and old. They all read together from the Jewish Midrash, “One who makes himself overly compassionate toward the cruel will end up being cruel to the compassionate.” From the Koran, “So follow not passion lest you lapse from truth,” and from the Psalms, “Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven.”

And they all sang “Amazing Grace,” written by a slave ship captain who became an Anglican priest – only appropriate since the site of Forrest’s slave market on that corner is now the parking lot of Calvary Episcopal Church. The church, Rhodes College and the National Park Service are sponsors of the new marker.

I’m a Memphian, and the truth shall make us free.


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