Historian: Statues not history, open to interpretation

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The Memphis City Council vote to remove the Confederate monuments came down so fast Wednesday night that many people did not notice the ordinance included the sale of the parks.

The ordinance for the immediate removal of the monuments was amended to include the sale of the parks at the last minute, but that amendment was not immediately read out loud.

City Council Chairman Berlin Boyd said that was not intentional, and the amended ordinance was read into record.

"A lot of people were looking for the ordinance to had been read by the maker, which was Councilman Ford," Boyd said. "So when I recognized he did not read out the amendment changed, I read it into the records, so it is there."

The council vote was unanimous, with all 12 members in favor of selling the parks.

City leaders said the sale of the parks was done legally and ethically, but some are asking why the parks were sold so much cheaper than what they are worth.

Mayor Jim Strickland said the sale of the parks was done for the greater good of the city.

Both Health Sciences Park and the Mississippi River Park were handed over to Greenspace, Incorporated for $1,000 each.

According to the Shelby County Assessor's office, the two parks combined appraisal value is more than $2 million.

We asked the mayor if this was a missed opportunity for the city to make money.

"We have a history in Memphis of selling property to non-profits at very little cost," Mayor Strickland said.

He said the parks do not make money for the city.

Mayor Strickland also said the private entity taking over the parks is tasked with the cost of maintaining the parks and must leave the parks as green space.

"They are not building condos, they are going to lose money because it costs money to maintain," Mayor Strickland said.

The process to sell the parks at a reduced rate below market value started back in September with the introduction of a city council ordinance. That served as a public notice the parks could be sold.

"The statute doesn't apply to a private entity, then I think what they did was legal," University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy said.

He said from what he can tell, the sale of the parks was done legally and ethically. He said there are ways the sale could have been orchestrated while abiding by state laws.

"A staff member or city council attorney could have gotten it to each member individually or could have briefed them all together, as long as they just asked questions and didn't discuss things with each other," Mulroy said.

The Tennessee House Republicans have announced an investigation into the removal of the statues, but Mayor Strickland said he welcomes the investigation and will provide whatever documents are needed.

WMC Action News 5 reached out to the spokesperson for the Tennessee House Republican Caucus for an interview, but we have not heard back yet.

Regardless of which side you're on, all sides can agree history was made Wednesday in the City of Memphis.

But now, some are asking how did the Confederate statues get here to begin with, and did their removal destroy history?

"The statues are not history," said historian Wayne Dowdy. "They're simply a symbol and they're open to interpretation."

Dowdy said the erection of these statues happened during a time of high racial tensions in America's 20th Century.

"One could argue this is a symbol of anti-civil rights in Memphis," Dowdy said.

The Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue was erected in 1905 honoring Forrest as a Confederate Army General.

The Jefferson Davis Statue was erected in 1964 -- 100 years after the Civil War, and a year before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Davis, a Confederate leader, lived in Memphis after the Civil War.

"Regardless of what the national government does, the forms of segregation were going to be maintained," Dowdy said.

"I'm glad it happened here, thank goodness it happened here, it should happen here," said Faith Morris with the National Civil Rights Museum.

It's been a push by many to have these statues down by MLK50.

"What the statues represented is what the Civil Rights Movement was fighting against - hatred, racism, oppression," Morris said.

MLK50 is four months away on April 4, 2018, and tens of thousands of people are expected to pack Memphis for the anniversary of Dr. King's death at the Lorraine Motel.

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