The Rev. Dorothy Wells was a 19-year-old student at Rhodes College when she first wandered in to Calvary Episcopal Church. Through the years, Wells, who graduated from Rhodes in 1982 and is now Rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, was fed, both literally and spiritually, by the people and ministry at Calvary. “This place is home,” she said from the pulpit Wednesday.
That’s why she called the day she found out about the location of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s slave market — less than 100 yards from the altar at Calvary — “the most difficult day of my life.”
“I understood that slave hands had helped build this place,” she said, her voice breaking. “But it was different when I knew that, week after week, people worshipped here and then went out to purchase children of God who looked like me.”
Wells’s testimony was part of a “Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation,” a collaboration between Calvary, Rhodes College and the National Park Service that culminated with the unveiling of a new historical marker titled “Forrest and the Memphis Slave Trade” at what was then 87 Adams, near B.B. King Boulevard.
It is a companion to an existing marker around the corner that says Forrest’s “business enterprises made him wealthy.” Those enterprises, not mentioned on the 1955 marker, included slave trading.
Timothy Huebner, a Rhodes history professor and member of Calvary, and his students researched original sources for details of Forrest’s Memphis slave market, including the names of people who were bought and sold there.
Rhodes sophomore Sarah Eiland, a member of the research team, told the standing-room-only congregation of more than 700 that, growing up in Mobile, Alabama, she hadn’t thought much about what her Southern history meant until she began working on Huebner’s project.
“Privilege has allowed me to jog past Confederate cannons and antebellum homes (in Mobile) without a second thought,” she said. She was changed, though, as she thought of the lives of mothers, fathers, and children captured in Africa and brought to Memphis to be sold into slavery.
“Remember their names,” Eiland said. “Recognize their lives.”
Doing exactly that became the emotional focus of the service, as members of the Rhodes, Calvary and Memphis communities took turns reading nearly 70 names and ages of people sold at 87 Adams. Huebner estimates those names are only a fraction of the total number of enslaved people sold there.
“Sarah, age 40.”
“Sally, age 18.”
“Joseph, age 4.”
“Clarissa, age 24.”
“Unnamed, age 18 months.”
The Calvary steeple bell tolled. As activist and Shelby County Commission candidate Tami Sawyer read her allotted names, voice trembling, members of the congregation began to stand. By the time University of Memphis professor Earnestine Jenkins began to read, everyone in the room was standing. Tears streaked faces; the sound of weeping was audible.
Others reading names included artist and Calvary parishioner Suzanne Henley, Rhodes professor Charles McKinney, Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Phyllis Aluko, community organizer Keedran Franklin, Randell Gamble with the Lynching Sites Project, and Huebner himself.
Following the reading of the names, the congregation joined in a litany for forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
People not of African descent confessed, in part, that “even today, the lingering effects of our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves have allowed a plague of poverty and disenfranchisement to engulf our sisters and brothers of color in forgotten communities in our city. Lord, forgive us.”
People of African descent prayed, “We grieve that our ancestors were denied the very rights upon which this country was founded, and even 100 years after slaves in the United States were granted their freedom, our federal, state and local governments perpetuated laws that allowed us to be treated unfairly and unequally.”
After the church service ended, the crowd moved outside into the sunshine, where the new monument, still under cover, was framed by the seated statues of Justice and Wisdom on the courthouse steps across the street.
“In my tradition,” said Rhodes president Marjorie Hass, who is Jewish, “we await the Messiah, and when we engage in acts of goodness, those footsteps come faster. I think I hear those footsteps.” Hass then turned and unveiled the new marker.
As Huebner said earlier, “Fifty years ago, Dr. King came to Memphis to show solidarity with the city’s striking sanitation workers, who held signs that simply said, ‘I Am a Man.’”
“By remembering the names of the enslaved and respecting the dignity of their lives,” he said, “we will attempt to follow King’s example of lifting up the forgotten.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.