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Town named for early KKK head doesn't dwell on it

February 27, 2009 at 2:31 p.m.

— A solitary sign recounts how workers led by the namesake of this Arkansas Delta town, Nathan Bedford Forrest, laid the final leg of the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad over Crowley's Ridge, a hilly stretch of windblown soil running through the Arkansas Delta.

The marker stops there in describing the man whose name adorns parks and college campuses across the South, a Confederate raider and slave trader whose troops massacred black Union soldiers and who served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Nearly a century and a half later, many here in this majority black town that Forrest helped create know nothing of the connection.

"People think it's forest, like trees," said Amanda Clifton, who teaches at East Arkansas Community College. "People in my history classes, they're surprised where the name came from."

Forrest's real record shows him as neither all villain nor all war hero.

"It is neither as good as it sounds or bad as it sounds," said Brian Steel Wills, a history professor at the University of Virginia at Wise who wrote a book on the general. "Forrest is a lot more complicated than that."

Forrest compiled a fortune before the war as a plantation owner and slave trader who imported Africans even after the practice had been made illegal. He became a general renowned for leading hit-and-run raids into Union territory, and would become most known for his role in the Fort Pillow massacre, when soldiers under his control killed about 300 black Union troops in western Tennessee.

Northern newspaper accounts at the time describe Forrest's soldiers as beating and shooting injured soldiers, women and children, and in one horrific instance, nailing a black soldier to a tent, then setting it ablaze.

Forrest denied aspects of the massacre when testifying before Congress. The federal government never prosecuted him, mindful of adding to the contempt many white Southerners felt during Reconstruction.

Forrest's name was a commodity in those early days after the war, at least in the South, where he made royalties lending his name to insurance and mercantile companies. The Klan sought him out to be the organization's first grand wizard, though later - after the group got so violent that states brought out militia to fight it - he would publicly deny even being a member while privately and futilely ordering the Klan to dissolve.

Forrest's shrewdness still drove him. He angered some white farm owners when he began offering higher wages to draw black workers to his railroad-building campaigns. Records of the Freedmen's Bureau, which helped former slaves find clothes, food and jobs, even noted that the former slave trafficker offered the best wages, Wills said.

"People who want to explain (his involvement with the KKK) away say he treated them well," the professor said. "Now that doesn't make him Mother Teresa. ... It makes him a practical businessman in the world he lived."

Forrest died in 1877 and is buried with his wife Mary in a downtown Memphis, Tenn., park named for him, a statue of him on a horse marking their grave. Dozens of other statutes and structures across the South bear his name as well, and not without notice.

One businessman recently suggested exhuming the couple's bodies for burial elsewhere. Last year, a TV ad by Tennessee congressional candidate Nikki Tinker put incumbent Rep. Steve Cohen's picture next to the image of a hooded Klansman. The ad by Tinker, who is black, criticized Cohen, who is Jewish, for voting against renaming the Memphis park. Cohen trounced Tinker in the August primary.

Last fall, a Florida school district considered changing the name of a Jacksonville high school amid complaints by a black board member that Forrest was a "terrorist and racist." The board voted 5-2, along racial lines, to keep Forrest's name on the predominantly black school.

In Forrest City, most of the 13,500 residents know what they know about Forrest from school quizzes about the town's origins: "Who was the man who brought the men here to build the railroad?" Most don't realize Forrest also helped plan the settlement and set up the area's first commissary.

The name itself causes little fuss. The general's portrait hangs quietly over a bouquet of silk flowers at the St. Francis County Museum, dressed in rebel grays and resting his hands on the hilt of a calvary sword. Only the occasional passer-by mentions the general's ties to the Klan.

"Whatever the reason was he did what he did, I don't know. I wasn't there and I can't explain any of that," museum director Shelley Gervasi said. "I don't really have people who come in and per se harp on it or say we should take him off the wall."

Another tribute to Forrest sits a block away, near a railroad crossing and a row of abandoned storefronts. Those empty stores give Mayor Gordon McCoy more pause than the city's namesake.

"With all the political issues and financial struggles our country is facing right now - and certainly in the Delta - that ranks at the bottom of our list right now - who this town is named after," said McCoy, who is black. "We certainly understand the history. But history is what it is: history. And we're moving forward."

For more information see Saturday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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