MEMPHIS, Tenn. – After decades of being prominently displayed in parks here, years of being fiercely debated and a whirlwind overnight removal from their public perches a year ago, three Confederate monuments remain stashed away, their future unclear and their exact location unknown to most.
Memphis is one of a number of cities that saw Confederate monuments come down from public spaces as cries for their removal reached a fever pitch in 2017. Some, like Baltimore, brought statues down in the days after deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in what officials described as public safety-motivated government action.
"I think a lot of cities are struggling with what to do with them," said Colin Tarbert, Baltimore's deputy chief for strategic alliances. "A lot of people don't want to see them destroyed because some consider them pieces of art."
The fate of the Confederate statues in Baltimore, like Memphis, a city with an African-American majority population, also remains undecided.
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In Memphis, efforts to take down Confederate statues increased in urgency in 2017 as events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination at the Lorraine Motel drew closer. The statues of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Capt. J. Harvey Mathes were removed from Memphis parks after dark Dec. 20, 2017.
"I think it removes symbolically a barrier that has held the city back," said Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, who played a pivotal role in the Memphis statue removal. "We're much more than the racial tension that has plagued the city in years past. The fact that Dr. King met his end here is still a painful memory for many in the world and especially for us here."
Since the statues came down in December 2017, the city and the nonprofit Memphis Greenspace, Inc., which Turner leads, saw a ruling in their favor in Davidson County Chancery Court in the state's capital city of Nashville. That decision now faces an appeal from the Sons of Confederate Veterans Nathan Bedford Forrest Camp 215.
But disagreement abounds over where the statues belong among those who fought for their removal because they see the monuments as symbols of racism and white supremacy and those who believe they are artifacts that are part of a history that shouldn't be ignored.
The 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist rally where one woman was killed and the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in which nine died have intensified that debate.
Turner has heard from groups interested in acquiring the monuments, he said.
"These are well-situated entities that would be appropriate to receive and preserve the assets in such a way that folks can still learn about the history of the Civil War," Turner said. "I think there is some historic value in the monuments."
The outcome the Sons of Confederate Veterans group is seeking is to have the statues restored to their pedestals in Memphis parks. The group's spokesman, Lee Millar, said the group hasn't devoted time to thinking about alternatives.
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"We haven't discussed that at all because our whole focus is putting the statues back," Millar said.
Turner has seen the parks, now named Health Sciences Park and Fourth Bluff Park, used differently in the past year, he said.
"I don't think you would have had yoga in the park, dinner in the park," Turner said. "The programming has gone to the next level, and I feel that the removal of the monuments has invited that interest and energy into the parks. I only see that increasing."
The graves of Forrest and his wife remain in the now-named Health Sciences Park, where his statue once stood.
Tami Sawyer started TakeEmDown901, a grassroots movement with Memphis' area code at the end that spurred a popular hashtag, and pushed for the statues' removal.
In the year since they came down, Sawyer was elected to the Shelby County Commission. While she is "elated" that the statues are down, her first months on the governing body have highlighted the persisting racial inequities in the area, she said.
"We have so much farther to go in our city and county," Sawyer said.
Other cities grapple with statues
State laws governing historical artifacts and statues vary, so cities dotting the Southern U.S. and in some other regions, have taken down Confederate statues or are considering it through different processes.
In a report, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified more than 100 Confederate symbols that have been removed from American cities since the Charleston shooting. The report, updated earlier this year, found that more than 1,700 Confederate symbols remain standing.
Marc Thompson, president of the Board of Directors for Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis estate in Biloxi, Mississippi, said he believes that Memphis officials violated the law in selling the parks and removing the statues. He thinks they "absolutely" should be restored to their locations in city parks.
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"As a board of directors, we have not even vaguely discussed anything beyond that expectation at this point," Thompson said when asked if Beauvoir representatives were interested in acquiring the Memphis Jefferson Davis statue.
But Thompson said Beauvoir representatives have been in contact with New Orleans city officials about relocating that city's Davis statue from there to Beauvoir, he said.
Davis died in New Orleans.
"We look at these things on a case-by-case basis," Thompson said.
New Orleans took down its Confederate statues in 2017, and they've been in storage since without a specific next step.
A few months after New Orleans removed its statues, the violence in Charlottesville ramped up discussions nationwide about remaining Confederate symbols. James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.
A jury in Charlottesville recommended this past week that Fields spend the rest of his life, plus 419 years, in prison.
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In the days following the Charlottesville violence, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered four statues removed under the purview of public safety, said Tarbert, the Baltimore city official.
Discourse around the statues had been ongoing for years in Baltimore. A special city commission examined the monuments with calls to do so arising out of a national debate around Confederate symbols after a self-proclaimed white supremacist killed nine African-Americans in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
The Baltimore monuments also remain in storage, Tarbert said.
After the 2015 Charleston shooting, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Gregory Fenves, convened a task force to evaluate statues on that campus. A statue depicting Davis was moved to a display at the university's Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in "a scholarly exhibition," Fenves said in a 2017 statement.
After the Charlottesville violence, Fenves decided to revisit the task force recommendations and move the other statues that remained on campus.
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"The historical and cultural significance of the Confederate statues on our campus – and the connections that individuals have with them – are severely compromised by what they symbolize," Fenves said in an August 2017 statement announcing his decision. "Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African-Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry."
The Austin City Council previously had renamed streets named after Davis and Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States Army. Another seven streets with Confederate connections were identified in a study.
Whether those names will be changed also is up to the City Council, said Brion Oaks, Austin’s chief equity officer.
In Louisville, Kentucky, crews on Dec. 11 removed a statue of George Dennison Prentice, one of two controversial statues that repeatedly had been vandalized and that city plans to relocate.
The events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the April 4, 1968, assassination of King in Memphis were a driving force behind efforts to remove Confederate statues here. Six months before, the city's request for permission from the state Historical Protection Commission to take the Forrest statue down was denied.
That led to the pursuit of a Plan B, selling the parks for $1,000 apiece to Memphis Greenspace.
The Tennessee Heritage Protection Act allowed the state Historical Protection Commission to prevent statues from being removed from public property but didn't prevent the city from selling the land to a private group.
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At the end of 2017, a Tennessee legislative session, where lawmakers could have passed a bill that would have closed a loophole in state law, stood between Memphis leaders and the King 50th anniversary events.
"We needed that boost," Turner said. "For MLK50, the city needed to show in a big way that we removed symbols of hatred, white supremacy and intimidation from these public places."
Memphis Greenspace removed the statues Dec. 20, shortly after Memphis City Council voted in favor of selling the parks.
Millar, the spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans local chapter, called the city's action to remove the statues "underhanded" and "backroom maneuvers."
"It was pretty distressing that the city would go to those extreme measures to tear down our history," Millar said. "It certainly wasn't above board."
A February Tennessee Comptroller's report found the city followed the Tennessee Open Meetings Act and the code of ordinances in selling the parks to a nonprofit for less than market value.
"We did it to the letter of the law," Memphis City Attorney Bruce McMullen said. "We were very conscious that this would be a highly scrutinized sale.”
State legislators strike back
Early in the Tennessee Legislature's 2018 session, East Tennessee legislators sponsored bills that would have allowed for the seizure of designated historic monuments sold to private individuals, forced cities that sell the monuments to foot the state's bill to seize them and threatened the involved elected officials with "ouster from office."
Another bill proposed withholding state money from any city selling or removing statues after the Tennessee Historical Commission denied the action, as Memphis had been.
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"We should be prepared to see more legislation coming out of Nashville, whether it's retroactively punitive or protecting the statues even further," said Sawyer, the county commissioner.
Tennessee state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat, said he doesn't anticipate more of what he calls "revenge legislation," targeting Memphis following the statue take-down, "but those kinds of things aren't predictable."
"I don't anticipate the new Legislature will want to engage in such crass, unproductive, vengeful and spiteful legislation," he said. "We will have 30 or so fresh faces and open minds, some of whom are replacing people who voted for that legislation."
'Almost like divine intervention'
The crane removed the Forrest statue from its perch at 9:01 p.m. CST Dec. 20, 2017, the time mirroring Memphis' area code, which Turner called "almost like divine intervention."
Turner's frame of reference for the monuments was built around his father's stories of his experiences growing up in Jim Crowe segregated Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s.
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The elder Turner had to endure "indignities and discrimination," such as riding on the back of the bus, entering restaurants through a side door and having to be accompanied through a park by a white person, Turner said.
So his father was the first person Turner called when the statues were down. The elder Turner died six months later.
"He was very elated though he was worried about our safety. He almost felt like a burden was lifted," Turner said. "It was emotional; it felt very good being able to tell him that we were able to get the monuments down. It was a very good thing, a very emotional thing."
Follow Jamie Munks on Twitter: @journo_jamie_