For decades Forrest Street has stretched across Hollywood, from the city's poor Liberia neighborhood to its affluent coastline. For more than a year, though, many locals have been urging city leaders to rename the road due to its namesake's unscrupulous history.
Commissioners have been dawdling for months about changing the street's name but so far have taken no action. This is an embarrassment to the city — to Mayor Peter Bober and mayoral candidate Patty Asseff.
The street was named to commemorate the life of Nathan "the Devil" Forrest, a lieutenant general in the Confederate army, according to Hollywood records. He made millions selling cotton, land, and slaves. He was also the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
As a soldier, Forrest was infamously known for the joy he took in killing Yankees and for his evasiveness, directing his troops to slip away from Union soldiers and perform sudden "lightning raids." He became a feared figure in battle, and the ominous glow of his character, according to the Civil War Trust, earned him the name the "Wizard of the Saddle."
Forrest was also involved in one of the most disturbing moments of the war. After seizing control of Fort Pillow in spring 1864, eyewitnesses said Forrest was enraged to see black men in Union uniform, and ordered their mass slaughter, even after they had surrendered. Nearly 300 people died.
In his book An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow, author Richard L. Fuchs writes, "The affair at Fort Pillow was simply an orgy of death, a mass lynching to satisfy the basest of conduct — intentional murder — for the vilest of reasons — racism and personal enmity."
Historian James W. Loewen, in his book Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, writes about the extent of Forrest's cruelty during this orgy of death. He and his men also "crucified black prisoners on tent frames and then burned them alive." The pungent smell of black soldier's charred flesh and hair mixed with smoke in the air.
The reasoning for the holocaust, Loewen states, is that in the eyes of Confederates, servile black people liked slavery, and in seeing "inferior" African American men in uniform, it irked Forrest and his men to their cores.
To this day, historians say the gruesome execution of the young men is a clear war crime. "All in the name of preserving white civilization," writes Loewen.
With screams and fire, the fighting "Negroes'" lives were extinguished.
After the war, Forrest went on to assume a new wizarding role — one which ensured his sinister reputation would brand the leathery pages of history.
In the late 1860s, he became part of a secret society comprised of fellow Confederate veterans. Its name? The Ku Klux Klan. The Devil, as he was called by Ulysses S. Grant, was so esteemed by early members of the group that he was made the KKK's first grand wizard.
One of the founders of the Klan, James R. Crowe, confessed at the turn of the century that the reason they selected the Devil was because he and his friends found it necessary to have someone with a lot of experience to command the new group, which began as a fraternity of sorts. "We chose General Forrest," Crowe said.
In the Maxwell House in Nashville, the Wizard swore the group's central oath: "Our main and fundamental objective is the maintenance of the Supremacy of the White Race in this Republic."
Many white Southerners were disenfranchised at the time (as opposed to now-freed slaves), and a mass of men enlisted in the Klan wishing to partake in the postwar fun — that is to say, on galloping horses covered with white sheets (yes, the horses were hooded too), they would terrorize those they felt were breaking the age-old rules of Southern society. Their favorite targets: upwardly mobile black people.
Members also extracted money from frightened minorities.
After leading the group for more than a year, Forrest insisted on changing members' garb. He saw that their concealed identities led to the "satiating" of personal vendettas.
Their supreme sin, though, in Forrest's eyes, was that their rowdiness led them to become unmanageable, a faux pas to the former general, especially since by that time he was trying to distance himself from further controversy (the feds had their eyes on him).
Just because Forrest admonished Klansmen's dress, however, doesn't ennoble him. Nor does it mean he disagreed with the group's overall mission (to ensure the supremacy of the "white race"). After his failed attempt to change the dress code, Forrest still identified with the order and continued to sign letters as the "Grand Wizard." Ties with the Klan stayed in good standing long after he died too. His grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest II, later went on to become a "Grand Dragon" with the elusive group.
Today many residents, particularly from Liberia, Hollywood's historic black community, have petitioned city leaders to change Forrest Street's name, especially since the road cuts through the heart of their community. Their efforts have been fruitless.
City spokesperson Raelin Storey says there is no set date on Hollywood's calendar to discuss changing the road's name, even though the city's African American Advisory Council made a formal pronouncement in July that urged a renaming.
Although there is no meeting planned in the foreseeable future, city officials say there is, however, a petition circulating to preserve Forrest Street, despite the outrage of minorities. Proponents of keeping the wizard's name argue he is a complicated figure whose reputed war crimes must be overlooked.
The crux of their argument is that the bad-tempered Forrest may have had a Damascene conversion in 1875 and once and for all seen the errors of his ways.
That year, a black social group, the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association (a predecessor of the NAACP), invited Forrest to speak at a barbecue they were hosting. The group was desperate to end the floggings by the masked marauders. Forrest went to the event, where he accepted a bouquet of flowers from a young African American woman.
In a speech, he urged the people to move upward socially. "I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, wherever you are capable of going," he said. "I came here to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people... Go to work, be industrious, live honestly..."
It was a hopeful enough speech, and after the resounding applause, a momentary calm came to the town. The Klan was kept at bay for a while.
But was Forrest's speech strategic subterfuge?
What is known is that after he embraced the "peace" flowers, the storm the wizard had initially set into motion in secrecy ravaged black lives with a vengeance. In lightning raids, the lynchings and terrorizing became more deadly than ever across the KKK's "kingdom." Hundreds, thousands of strange fruit swung listlessly off sycamore trees in the years to come.
At best, had the slave-trafficker Forrest finally realized the "Negroes" could be more than slaves, history still shows us that racists don't need to treat minorities as if they are totally subhuman for them to harbor prejudiced underpinnings and enforce double standards. After all, Rosa Parks was allowed on the Cleveland Avenue bus.
Earlier this year, Hollywood historian Dr. Joan Mickelson told New Times that she did not know why or when the city chose to honor Forrest with a street but that she supports the road's renaming — preferably to a name that celebrates black culture in America.
Toward the end of this life, the Devil went on to oversee a prison camp near Memphis which, according to the laws of the day, ran very similarly to a prewar plantation. New Times cannot find any record that indicates what befell the dozens of men (most of them black) under his watch.
Forrest died on October 29, 1877. After he was laid to rest, the cemetery he was buried in was named Forrest Park in his memory. In 2013, however, more than 100 years since his passing, it was renamed Health Sciences Park due to his disgraceful history.
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