By P. E. Garcia
The first time I went to Forrest City, Arkansas, I was traveling to Memphis with my friend Penelope to see Elf Power. We stopped at a Taco Bell, and I distinctly remember feeling out of place, like we were in a foreign country, not just a mere hour or so away from our hometown of Little Rock. I was wearing a Sufjan Stevens shirt that simply said “Greetings from Michigan!” and the woman at the counter thought we were tourists.
It wasn’t unusual for us to feel so out-of-place, though. Penelope is trans, and I’m Latino, two things most folks don’t associate with the South. Yet as much as we felt we stood out in the relatively urban atmosphere of Little Rock, this was amplified in Forrest City—a town that prides itself on being “the Jewel of the Delta.”
It would be a stretch for me to pretend that I have an intimate relationship with Forrest City, but after that initial trip, the town became something of a ritual for me. On my way to Memphis or Nashville or somewhere else I would stop in Forrest City to remind myself of the Delta, and its history, and all the ugliness contained therein.
Forrest City is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate general. He essentially founded the city, as it grew up from one of his campsites.
Forrest is well-known across the South, thanks to the numerous parks, schools and monuments that were named for him. He was widely praised for his military tactics during the Civil War, often referred to as “the Wizard of the Saddle.” After the war ended, it’s widely believed Forrest was also the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
He is also famous for a massacre. On April 12, 1864, Forrest’s troops captured Fort Pillow in northern Tennessee. Accounts vary widely, but one thing is clear: over 64% of Black Union soldiers in the dispute were killed—twice the number of their white counterparts. Some said that the river ran red with their blood for three miles; reports came back that unarmed, Black soldiers had been gunned down, drowned, and even burned to death.
Whether Forrest personally ordered Black Union soldiers to be massacred is unknown. However, a Confederate sergeant recalled the battle like this:
“The slaughter was awful—words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded Negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hands scream for mercy, but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.”
The Mississippi Delta, over a century later, continues to be a hotbed of violence, particularly for gender minorities and people of color. Forrest City itself is actually only a few hours away from Ferguson, Missouri, where unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson. Less than an hour away from Forrest City, Memphis police were caught on tape beating Duanna Johnson, a Black trans woman. Nine months after that video was released, Johnson was found dead of a single gunshot wound to the head.
Just on the outskirts of Forrest City, on March 8th, 2011, a Black trans woman named Marcel Tye was found dead on the side of the road. She had been shot in the head and dragged 300 feet by a car. St. Francis County Sherriff Bobby Mays insisted that Tye’s death wasn’t a hate crime—just an “ordinary murder,” because, he decided, the body was dragged by a car “accidentally.” Mays referred to Tye as being “a well-known cross dresser in the area.” The Sheriff’s website, which claims this murder is still being investigated, incorrectly refers to Tye as “he.”
Regardless of whatever ambiguities surround Forrest’s life, his legacy is one clearly marred by horrific racism and violence. As we begin to ask whether or not the symbols and heroes of the Confederacy and the Old South are still appropriate, I sadly concede that Nathan Bedford Forrest is a fitting talisman of the hideous prejudices and violence that continue to pervade the Delta region.
Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:
Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting
Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting
David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme
Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent
Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own
Gene Kwak: Dirty Work
RE Katz: The Shift