Podcast Ep02: How should controversial historical figures be taught?

eyeglasses on opened book beside cup of coffee on table

This week is podcast launch week!

We talk about Nathan Bedford Forrest and how he came to have a statue in Memphis…and later why that statue was taken down.

Listen to more of our Talk With History podcast here.


Ep02: How should controversial historical figures be taught?

Scott 0:11
Greetings, and welcome to the Talk With History Podcast. I am your host, Scott, and I’m here with my wife and historian, Jen, on this podcast we talk about history’s continuing impact on all of us and our personal journey. Even me and Jen, through YouTube is we kind of go out with a family and explore and we record and we share our history walks with our subscribers and our community and the walk with history community so So Jen, what are we? What are we talking today on the talk with history podcast?

Jenn 0:49
So today we’re going to cover our very first video on walk with history.

Scott 0:55
Okay, so what was what was that? What was our very first video that we made once you kind of recap that for anyone who hasn’t seen it?

Jenn 1:02
So the very first video for walk with history on YouTube is Nathan Bedford Forrest, and we’re going to talk about why he was the first video and then get into the man himself. So

Scott 1:17
okay, before we do that, I have a very important question.

Jenn 1:21

Scott 1:22
Why was Forrest Gump named after Nathan Bedford Forrest because a lot of people don’t realize that in the movie Forrest Gump. That’s who he’s named after.

Jenn 1:32
I think she says to remind him that sometimes people do things that just don’t make no sense. That’s what she says.

Scott 1:38
That’s right. Yeah, that’s what she says.

Jenn 1:40
Yeah. And I think, and they’re related to him, right? They’re, like, distantly related to him. And she wanted to name him after that, to remind him that people do think sometimes that just don’t make no sense. Like, those are her words.

Scott 1:53
Yeah. And I bring that up, because I think that kind of ties that thread like you like to say, ties through why you did yeah. the walk with history on on Nathan Bedford Forrest so tell us how, why that was our first one, okay. And kind of where that came from?

Jenn 2:11
Sure. So, we had just moved to Memphis in July of 2016. And Memphis was completely new for us. So Scott is from California, born and raised, I did some college in Maryland. And then I am from all over, but never the South. Even though I was born in North Carolina, which is, is the south, but I was only there for two years. And then we quickly moved to Hawaii and Wyoming and Pennsylvania. So when we both moved to Memphis in July of 2016, we were really surrounded by a different culture. And I wanted to start a Facebook page called walk with history, for my family and for your family and for our friends. So we could kind of teach them about the history of Memphis and the surrounding areas that none of us really had been privy to before. So that was the whole point. And the first video I did was Nathan Bedford Forrest, and it’s because of his statue that was right in the middle of the city of Memphis. So I thought that would, we would drive by it. And we had no clue who he was, until we lived in Memphis. And we had no clue what even statue that was, until we had to ask people and then we were like, well, who is this guy? And why does he have a statue in the middle of Memphis? And so that was really the emphasis of that video to kind of explain who he was. Why is the statue here? And what does it mean for the city?

Scott 3:58
Yeah, and I think that’s one of the cool things that a lot of people who’ve only seen walk with history of the YouTube channel don’t know is that was four or five years before we ever started walk with history on on YouTube, right? You just literally just grabbed your phone vertical video, which drove me crazy. Yes. and posted it up. You made a Facebook page and you posted it up and you shared it with a bunch of friends and they thought it was interesting and all of a sudden you had all these friends like oh my gosh, can I be part of this Facebook page and you started gathering like a mini following there at the you know, I think today where there’s a couple hundred not as many as the YouTube channel but there was interest there.

Jenn 4:40
Yes. And videoing it vertically was a challenge than trying to make it our first YouTube video because we had to try to make that video that vertical video into a horizontal video for that first take YouTube video but we I thought that was important. And to revisit that because in the last five years from the time I had done the original video to when we had done the YouTube video, things have changed.

Scott 5:10
So what what things had changed? Since I think you did the vertical, the original video, just the original walk, and 2016. So what had changed between that and when we started

Jenn 5:20
with a statue had been removed. That’s right. And there was still there was still talk because what the The interesting thing about the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue is he’s actually buried underneath it, and his wife is buried underneath it. So that caused a lot of difficulties, because you had to also remove a grave and change a grave. So there was a lot of legal proceedings that went with that. So the statue had been removed for for a long time, the pedestal had not. So I wanted to update viewers on what had happened since then, and what was going to happen to the statue and to the bodies of Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife.

Scott 6:09
Yeah, and just to kind of reset the context of the scene is in 2016, the video or the statue is still up there, right? You’re going there. And there was some stuff on the ground. I think it was some black lives matter stuff that was on the ground.

Jenn 6:24
That wasn’t there until that wasn’t until later. Yeah, in 2016. There was nothing

Scott 6:28
Yeah. So in 2016, you did the original video. The statute was up there. And then fast forward a couple years, when nationally there was a black lives matter movement has kind of surfaced or resurface.

Jenn 6:40

Scott 6:41
And statues all around the country, specifically, largely through the south for obvious reasons. Civil War era statues, they people had been taking them down or arguing to take them down. And all of a sudden Nathan Bedford Forrest, be gained center attention center stage in the Memphis area. So tell us about Nathan Bedford Forrest, and kind of briefly summarize who he was and what people did know or didn’t know about him.

Jenn 7:12
So he’s a, he’s a confusing an interesting person. First of all, his statue is right in the middle of Memphis like rape besides sin studio, so if you know anything about Memphis and the history of Memphis, it’s it’s really known for its music history studios, where Elvis Presley was originally recorded, and that’s what Johnny Cash did a lot of his recording. So you can see the statue from sun studio. So it was a very prominent statue in the city. He was a slave trader, and being a student of American history, and getting my master’s in American history. At the University of Memphis, using that term slave trader, comes under a lot of controversy, because that term, kind of equates to an equal trade of commodities. And when you’re talking about trafficking people and selling people, there really is no equality of commodity there. So it really downplays what is really happening in that situation. So I don’t, I might switch back and forth with my verbiage saying human trafficker, or slave trader, just so you understand really what he is doing. So he,

Scott 8:37
what’s the best known for?

Jenn 8:40
I bet, he’s not for a couple things. This live trading, he makes his millions in that then he becomes a Confederate General in the Civil War. And that’s what the statue depicted. The statue depicted him on a horse in his Civil War uniform. And he is a general of the Calgary in Tennessee, and he is, for all intents and purposes, he is a good general and the fact that he is evasive and unable to be captured, and can make a really strong fights. And for those reasons, Grant has a famous line that is called that that devil forest because he was hard to capture and hard to overcome. Of course, he never ends up winning, you know, the civil wars, that one. So he comes back to Tennessee and starts to make his way in the railroad industry. And then he is known for being the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. So he’s not known and that’s what they depict in Forrest Gump.

Scott 9:51
And that’s what they depict. And that’s really where the controversy came out in the 2019 timeframe when all those statues were getting torn down. That was the first Focus on the public in the media in the Memphis area even I remember not being a history guy. It was all over the news. Yes. And that was the focus right? It was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Master of the Klu Klux Klan, Grand Wizard, Grand Wizard. But there’s a lot of context that the news and media doesn’t give.

Jenn 10:20
So that’s that’s why I said it’s confusing. He was not a originator of the Klu Klux Klan. He did not start the Klu Klux Klan that was started started in Polanski, Tennessee, which is about, I would say, two hours to the east of Memphis. And it’s well documented. They’re the people who actually started the Klan. And then even there is no real direct documentation that shows him as the Grand Wizard. There’s a account of him being in a hotel in Nashville, where a hotel room where they had gathered for a Klan meeting, and they had elected him the first Grand Wizard and someone gives that account. Now, I don’t think Forrest ever verifies that and agrees with that. I do think that he was there is a council he is definitely evolved involved in the clan. The clan had a different kind of beginning than what we think of it today. It really was, at first to stop Northerners coming down south and taking Southern land and taking Southern jobs. And so to push the carpetbaggers back, but it was always violent. And that’s that was their means of stopping people. And then, then it definitely turned into a racial violence by to get forest, testifying at one point that he did. Some African American men had been lynched, and he said that him himself would go out with a party to catch the lunchers.

So I am I’m not arguing for or against Forrest in any way, I have no ties to Forrest, or the area. I always feel like an interloper, when I talk about stuff like this, because I am, I’m definitely feel like a Yankee. But I do want all the information out there because this was the confusing part. For me. Learning about him, as a student of American history at the University of Memphis, is there was definitely things on both sides that I could see. And I knew that he had done terrible things. But I also in the end, he gives a speech at a pallbearers Association in favor of African Americans and African American education. And he’s actually presented flowers by an African American woman, and he kisses her on the cheek. Now I have professors that feel that that was all part of a scheme to get workers for his railroad business. But there’s no verification of that. So those are the things you have to you have to worry about as a historian is you can’t just I think it was this Well, does it? Is there a document that said, We’d that Forrest said, I did this because I really just wanted people to come work for my railroad. Unless you have those things, you’re really just guessing as a historian.

Scott 13:39
Yeah. And I think, from my perspective is watching you go through your graduate education, and watching you learn about these things, and you coming home and talking to me about them. You know, I started hearing this and I had the initial reaction that probably most people do, and the people listening to this podcast is saying, like, well, she kind of being an apologizer, for Nathan Bedford Forrest. And I learned that that’s not the case at all, really what you’re doing, what a historian should do is consider and learn and talk about all the facts and like you’ve said, try to remove your own personal bias. So that’s, that’s kind of the historians job is to do that. And so I thought that was very interesting because this is an incredibly uncomfortable subject for a lot of people. And he was a very controversial figure for that part of his life for so when the statues started getting taken down all throughout the south and in 2019 timeframe. That was a big thing in the Memphis area. They did it in the middle of the night, which a lot of people didn’t agree with and, and this that the other so that’s one of the things that I found very interesting was something as uncomfortable and controversial as Nathan Bedford Forrest who many The only thing they really know him for is that if they know anything at all, they might know him for Forrest Gump or as the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Yes. And there was a lot more they’re

not apologizing or not vouching for or against. But taking the whole picture into account,

Jenn 15:22
absolutely like so I was a part of a group that actually had a marker put up at the location, a historic marker put up at the location where his business was his human trafficking business, his slave trade business on Adams Avenue. in Memphis, we had a marker put up to emphasize this is how Nathan Bedford Forrest made his money he human traffic people. And that ceremony, which we did on the anniversary of the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King assassination, the ceremony to dedicate that marker, we read the names, I say we I was in I was present there. I didn’t read any names that day. One of my professors did that with a couple of my friends did. Researchers found the names I think, I don’t want to I don’t know exactly 80 enslaved people that were sold by Nathan Bedford Forrest. And I mean, as young as six months old, and I cried, I cried.

So I think he’s a terrible person in that regard. I do I am, what a horrible thing to do, to sell people. But as a historian, I believe that people can make up their own minds. And my job is to give you the facts. My job is to give you the facts of those names. My job is to give you the facts of what he did in the Civil War, what he did after with the Klan, what is factual about that? And then what is factual about the pallbearers speech? And then you have to decide is this man, did he have a second chance? Did he have a change of heart? Did he decide that he was wrong? In the end of his life? Do people get that chance? in life? I mean, I’m not. This is again, I’m not saying one way or the other how I feel about Nathan Bedford Forrest, I’m saying, These are the facts. And that’s what a historian is supposed to do is give them to you. So you can decide. In the end, the statue was taken down, it was taken down at night, I believe that if a statue was put up by the community, it has every right to be taken down by the community, especially if the community doesn’t feel that that that exemplifies how they feel about something.

But I think you and I have talked about this before, taking it down at night, I think sends the wrong message. I think it should be taken down in the middle of the day. And it should be taken down to fanfare they these statues historically go up in great fanfare, they go up with great crowds of people, and a lot of excitement. And they should be taken down. I feel in the same way. Because that should be how the community feels about it.

Scott 18:19
Yeah. So I think it was an interesting one to start walk the history The our YouTube channel with, but you did a good job in relaying and I think clear you shining a clear spotlight on all of the facts.

Jenn 18:37
Yeah. And I wanted to emphasize too, that he that statute didn’t go up until I can’t remember now little after the 1900s. He had already died and had already been buried at Elmwood cemetery with his wife. So his body was moved, and his wife’s body was was moved to that park. And at the time, that park was the outskirts of Memphis. Now it’s like the center of Memphis, but at the time, it’s the outskirts and it was private property. And someone had paid for the statue and had it all put up. Then, of course, that person passed away, gifts the park to the city. And then the city has to now have this controversial

Scott 19:18
they build around it.

Jenn 19:19
Yes. Yeah. And so he’s he was not originally buried there. And he has a daughter who actually dies young from and she’s buried at Edwards cemetery. And she’s, she stayed there. So he originally was buried with his wife and young daughter. And then they just moved him and his wife and left the young daughter there. So

Scott 19:42
no, it was again, it was a very interesting one. And I think, hopefully for the people listening today, they learn a little bit about who Nathan Bedford Forrest was and more than just the namesake of Forrest Gump. And someone who did something that doesn’t make much sense Forrest Gump smother says, and also kind of why use this is kind of the origin story of Walk With History. This is why you started it, you started it literally just because you enjoy sharing your knowledge with friends and family on interesting pieces of history. And you did so literally just by walking out to where the statue was and, and filming.

Jenn 20:24
The only two things that I really think about when I think of that statue is without that statue, I would never know who he was. It was because we had moved there. And we were driving around and I saw that statue and I go What is that? Who is that? And Nathan Bedford Forrest, Who Who was he? And that’s when I learned about him. Now I’m not saying that you need a statue to learn? Sure, absolutely not. But I found out more about him because of that statue. I don’t think the statue is being destroyed, I think it’s going to the sons of the Confederacy and Spring Hill, Tennessee, they have a home or a area where I think the statue is going. And I think also the bodies are going there, they’re not even going back to onward. So I don’t know, if I buy into all of that you’re destroying history taken down. I don’t know the history doesn’t get destroyed. History does not get made by a statue doesn’t get destroyed by a statue. I also don’t believe there’s racism in a statue, I believe it’s a statue, I think all the racism and hate you feel is in your heart. And whatever you have learned about a certain person or about a certain thing a history, it’s it’s what you have learned and what you see, because of no one even knows who that person is. Looking at a statue of them is not going to make them see racism. So I think there has to be a part where you were recognizing our education. And where’s our education coming from? And who’s teaching us? And what are the nuances that people are using for wording,

Scott 22:07
some of it the collective understanding as well,

Jenn 22:10
collective understanding and like I said, like slave trade, human trafficking and like, how are things being presented to us and educational level, to understand things. So I think he was a great person to learn from in the beginning, because he was so controversial. And remind you the people, again, just like she says in Forrest Gump, people do things that don’t make much sense. People do terrible things. And then people do great things. And when does, when does one outweigh the other? I don’t know. And I don’t, I will never make that decision. But I will try to lay all the facts out for you. So you can make them. Yeah,

Scott 22:53
well, again, thank you for kind of giving us your perspective on on history and sharing that hopefully those who are listening, who may have seen the video in the past on the walk with history YouTube channel can either go check it out, if you haven’t seen it, any of you have watched it before. Hopefully this provided a little bit more background and insight into why we started why that was the very first video. And thank you for listening. So please reach out to us on Twitter, we have the Twitter handle at talk with history. So just what I’d encourage folks to do if you guys are on that medium is go on Twitter, and tweet at us and tell us where in the world you were listening from. I want to hear from our listeners out there where you guys are listening from what part of the country what part of the world. You can find more of this podcast at talkwithhistory.com. And thank you and we’ll talk to you guys again next week.

Jenn 23:47
I’d be interested to if people knew who Nathan Bedford Forrest was,

Scott 23:51
yes, that would be an interesting thing.

Jenn 23:53
If you could write if you could write Did you know who he was? Yeah.

And when did you learn about him? Because I did not.

Scott 23:59
Yeah, little a little community poll there. So, so tweet us @talkwithhistory. Let us know if you knew who Nathan Bedford Forrest was, where you guys were from, and we look forward to connecting with you and talking with you next week.

Jenn 24:11
Thank you so much.

Published by Scott

The mountains are calling, let me grab a jacket and my kids.

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