Contextualization plaque for Memphis slave trade unveiled during MLK anniversary

Posted on Apr 5 2018 - 5:58am by Taylor Vance

MEMPHIS — Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis participated in the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by holding a “Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation” and unveiling a historical marker. The historical marker contextualized Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s operation of the Memphis slave trade that occurred yards away from the church.

There was standing room only at the church as a crowd came together to reflect on the injustice that occurred and remember the names of slaves who were sold at the slave trade.

The Rev. Dorothy Wells served as an officiant for the service and said that when she first discovered that people who attended the church during the days of slavery allowed the oppressive slave trade to continue was one of the hardest days of her life. She said she couldn’t comprehend the fact people would “attend church on Sunday and conduct their business transactions on Monday.”

“This (church) in which we sit today is what I call home,” Wells said. “This is a place where I grew community and where I grew in my understanding of God. This is the very place where the seeds were planted where I would go on to ordained ministry. … For a fleeting moment, this place that had always been home didn’t feel like home anymore.”

Photo by Blake Alsup

Wells said American history is a “shared history,” not one of white history or black history. She said everyone is a part of the history of this country for the past 200 years, and no one can change history, only the future.

“We must hold one another not in bitterness, not in hatred, not in anger, but in love and accountability,” Wells said. “Now it is up to us to redress the wrongs of the past. Now it is up to us to figure out how we move together to a better place in the future.”

Wells said that today is a day of great rejoicing, but it is also a day of motivation because King’s work is not done and neither is anyone else’s work. Wells spoke about several issues of injustice in the Memphis area she said need more attention brought to them.

“Our work here in Memphis cannot be done as long as African-Americans in Memphis are twice as likely to be unemployed as white Memphians,” Wells said. “Our work cannot be done here as long as median incomes for African-American households in Memphis are 60 percent to that of white households. … Our work will never be done until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The other officiant, the Rev. Scott Walters, added to Wells’ reflection and drew parallels between his life as a minister to King’s letters he wrote to ministers while imprisoned in Birmingham.

“Dr. King wrote his famous letter in Birmingham to people a lot like me,” Walters said. “White pastors who supported his larger project but wanted him to go a little bit slower. His criticism was scathing. He wrote the letter to white moderates who was more devoted to order than justice.”

Names of some of the slaves who were sold at the slave auction were read aloud. Members of the church discovered them through research. Rhodes College student Sarah Eiland took part in the research and shared her thoughts on what remembering the slaves should look like.

“Remembrance begins by giving names to those who have remained nameless for so long,” Eiland said. “Every name you will hear represents a mother, a father, a son and a daughter. Each name deserves to be remembered and acknowledged.”

As the names were being read aloud, members in the audience stood up one by one, unprompted, out of respect and remembrance for the people sold into bondage.

After the service, the plaque was unveiled by Timothy Good of the National Park Service. Marjorie Hass, the president of Rhodes College, said that the congregation standing up is one thing they will always remember and cherish. Both Good and Haas described their experience with the contextualization project and shared portions of the text.

“In 1854, Forrest purchased this property on Adams, between Second and Third, just east of an alley behind Calvary Episcopal Church,” the historical marker read. “In the decades after the Civil War, many white southerners chose to portray Forrest as a military hero, thus excusing or ignoring Forrest’s buying and selling of human beings.”

After the unveiling, many people in attendance expressed gratitude to the church for researching and taking the lead for the contextualization project and rushed to read the text on the plaque.

Memphis resident Ron Peck came to the service and plaque unveiling as an alternative to going to the Lorraine Motel to celebrate King’s life. Peck decided to attend the event because he remembered watching television and hearing the news of King’s assassination as a 13-year-old.

“To me, this is a very moving service,” Peck said. “I love the idea that we were able to, in some way, resurrect the people who were sold here over 150 years ago. I wanted to give homage to them.”