The city of Memphis sold two public parks containing Confederate monuments to a nonprofit Wednesday in a massive operation to take the statues down overnight.
The City Council unanimously approved the sale of Health Science Park, home of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Fourth Bluff Park, home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, for $1,000 each to Memphis Greenspace Inc.
The sale — which is almost certain to result in a lawsuit from statue supporters — allows Greenspace to legally do what the city of Memphis cannot: Remove the statues from their visible perches in the parks, Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen said. He said they would be stored in an undisclosed location for security reasons.
"Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park have been sold," Mayor Jim Strickland said in a social media post soon after the vote. Operations on those sites tonight are being conducted by a private entity and are compliant with state law. We will have further updates later tonight."
The nonprofit, which is led by Shelby County Commissioner and attorney Van Turner, brought in a crane to remove the Forrest statue first at around 6 p.m.
Greenspace signed a contract with Strickland on Friday that requires them to continue operating the park as a park, McMullen confirmed Wednesday. He said he knew of no plans for the nonprofit to sell the parks back to the city.
After the vote, Memphis police quickly deployed from the riverfront area near the Interstate 40 welcome center in Downtown and cordoned off the parks with yellow crime scene tape. Crowds gathered at both locations as word spread via social media.
Workers placed a ladder up to the base of the statue and could be seen moving around it, apparently attaching straps, shortly after 6 p.m., within an hour after the council vote. Two big cherry-pickers were in use on both sides of the statue.
Council member Janis Fullilove, who voted for the ordinance, said it was a "crazy, crazy, crazy night."
"It's really going down in history that this is the night they are going to take the statues down," she said. "It's a historic moment.
City Council member Berlin Boyd came over and talked with reporters.
“We want to thank all of the business community,” he said at one point, and onlookers with grassroots activist group #TakeEmDown901 began taunting him for not acknowledging their efforts, which included several high-profile, well-attended protests. Some shouted insults and curses. Boyd finished talking and walked across the street.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, released this statement, referencing the graves of Forrest and his wife currently resting under the statue:
“I commend Mayor Strickland and the City Council for finding a way to legally remove statues from an era that is not representative of Memphis today and have remained an affront to most of the citizens of Memphis,” Cohen said.
“As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, it’s important that these relics of the Confederacy and defenders of slavery don’t continue to be displayed in prominent places in our city. Hopefully, the Forrests will be returned to their rightful and preferred burial spot — Elmwood Cemetery.”
The city hopes to move the graves eventually as well, back to their original burial plot in Elmwood.
Strickland has long said he would consider any "legal" options for removing the statues, but wouldn't say whether he considered immediate removal an option. Strickland's communications cadre said he would be available for comment later in the evening.
The vote Wednesday followed months of frustration for city officials fighting against the state's reams of red tape that kept the statues in place despite a wave of public opposition. Council member Edmund Ford Jr. proposed a substitute ordinance that was approved without being read before or immediately after the vote, leaving the crowd in the dark about its contents or the impending police blitz around the statues.
The Tennessee Historical Commission voted Oct. 13 to deny the city's application to remove the Forrest statue, prompting the administration to appeal the decision to Chancery Court and, separately, to argue before an administrative law judge that the city has the authority to remove the statue without a waiver. The city filed for a waiver before the state legislature expanded the scope of Tennessee Heritage Protection Act in 2016 to include monuments of historical figures.
The administration supports removing both the Forrest statue and a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, although action on Davis is still pending.
The City Council, then-council member Strickland included, voted in 2015 to remove the Forrest statue and to move the graves of he and his wife back to their original burial plot in Elmwood Cemetery.
The Forrest statue, installed in 1904, has a long and controversial history in Memphis. Forrest was, in his later life, a pillar of Memphis society who helped steer the city toward its defining industry of shipping. But he was also a pre-war slave trader, alleged war criminal, and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan — a group he later renounced.
Reporter Daniel Connolly contributed to this report.
Reach Ryan Poe at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ryanpoe.