MEMPHIS, Tenn. (CN) – Descendants of the Ku Klux Klan’s first leader Nathan Bedford Forrest claim in a lawsuit filed Monday that Memphis destroyed the Confederate general’s gravestone when it removed his statue from a city park.
The complaint, filed in Shelby County Chancery Court by lead attorney H. Edward Phillips III, argues the statue standing on a pedestal above the remains of Forrest and his wife that lie in copper caskets was part of the graves’ headstone for over 100 years.
Four great-great-grandsons and an indirect descendant of Forrest sued Memphis and members of its City Council, alleging breach of trust, conspiracy and violation of state law for transferring ownership of the Health Sciences Park, where the statue stood, to a private organization that promptly removed it.
“Memphis Greenspace, acting in coordination with the public officials from the city of Memphis, including law enforcement officials and other Jane and John Does, desecrated the graves of both Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, including the removal of the Forrest Equestrian Statue from its pedestal during the night of December 20, 2017,” the 20-page complaint states.
Memphis’ move happened at a time when many southern cities questioned what to do with public displays of Confederate memorials after a 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, rally held by white supremacists left one counterprotester dead.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation. The descendants want possession of the statue, pedestal, caskets and remains.
Eventually, Forrest’s remains may be moved. His descendants asked the court for an order allowing them dig up and rebury the remains of their ancestors “at the option of the plaintiffs to a location of their choosing.”
In addition to Franklin, Tennessee-based lawyer Phillips, other attorneys representing Forrest’s descendants include Charles Blackard III and Jonathan Pledger III, both from Franklin, and Bo Ladner III of Nashville.
In 1904, sculptor Charles Niehaus created the statue of Forrest, who was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Its removal, according to the complaint, was a “direct violation of the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act … and common law principals protecting burial sites.”
Besides being on the National Register of Historic Places and part of a grave of a historic figure, the statue was a monument that fell under the purview of Tennessee’s laws governing historic markers, the descendants argue.
Memphis transferred ownership of the park to a private group, Memphis Greenspace, in order to exploit a then-loophole in Tennessee statutes.
Furthermore, the complaint alleges Forrest’s descendants are unable to visit the graves because a chain-link fence cuts off access to the site.
Attorney Ladner said the descendants filed the lawsuit arguing the removal of the statue desecrated Forrest’s grave because they wanted to preserve the issue before the statute of limitations expired.
This is not the only case about the legality of the removal working its way through the Tennessee court system. The question is also being considered by the Tennessee Historical Commission, Ladner said.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals is weighing whether the transfer of the park to private hands was legal, according to the complaint.
“The descendants especially have made it clear throughout this process, it’s not about money for them at all,” Ladner said in an interview. “It’s trying to get their ancestor to his final resting place and getting it there quietly. Nobody wants their family’s graves to be disturbed by cranes, jackhammers, or to be moved without their own permission.”
The day the case was filed, Ladner went by the park. He said the ground is torn up and caution tape was rolled out.
Besides the graves of Forrest and his wife, Ladner said, there could be between 40 to 60 graves of unclaimed Union and Confederate soldiers in the park.
Bruce McMullen, chief legal officer of Memphis, said in a statement that the city had anticipated the legal action and is ready to defend itself from the descendants’ claims.
“Every oversight body, including the courts and state comptroller, has found our actions to be lawful or appropriate,” McMullen said. “We expect the same outcome in this case. The city sold Health Sciences and Memphis parks to Memphis Greenspace, legally.”