The Cornwallis conversation

As I watched the remarkable footage of Halifax municipal crews placing a black shroud over the likeness of city founder Edward Cornwallis amidst a large crowd of cheering protestors, my mind flashed to a story I had recently read another controversial statue, this one in Tennessee.

It’s a 25-foot depiction of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant-general for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, in full flight atop a golden steed. It looms large over a section of Interstate 65 – located, as Montreal Gazette reporter Joe O’Connor pointed out in early June, only a 20-minute drive from the home arena of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.

O’Connor’s story tied into the Predators’ recent run to the Stanley Cup Final, which was sparked in part by the arrival of defenceman P.K. Subban – arguably the most prominent African-Canadian player in the NHL right now – following a shocking trade with the Montreal Canadiens just over a year ago.

And Forrest? He became one of the first prominent members of the fledgling Ku Klux Klan in the early 1870s, less than a decade after leading the 1864 Battle of Fort Pillow that saw hundreds of black Union Army prisoners slain under his command, resulting in charges of war crimes. Earlier in his life, Forrest was a slave-trader, proudly placing ads for his so-called “property” in the Memphis City Directory.

He’s still seen as a hero in many corners of the south. There’s a county named after him in Mississippi, and there are 32 historical markers dedicated to Forrest in Tennessee alone, including a bust in the state’s capital building. That’s more than the combined total for the three American presidents associated with Tennessee.

Efforts to lessen Forrest’s presence in public spaces around the southeastern United States have met with mixed reaction over the past 15 years. A school board in Jacksonville, Florida held two votes on renaming a high school bearing Forrest’s surname over the past decade, finally succeeding in changing the name to Westside High School in 2014. A campaign to drop the Forrest Hall name from a building at Middle Tennessee State University failed in the early 2000s, but a depiction of Forrest was subsequently removed from the side of the structure. The university’s Blue Raiders athletic teams also changed their mascot to the mythical winged horse, Pegasus, to avoid comparisons with horses used by Forrest in the Civil War.

And then there are the stubborn defenders of Forrest and his ilk, attempting a literal whitewash of American history. The I-65 Forrest statue’s sculptor, Jack Kershaw, was quoted before his death as saying, in relation to the work he erected on private land in 1998: “Somebody has to say something good about slavery.”

The current owner of the land in question, 80-year-old Bill Dorris, keeps the Forrest statue surrounded by Confederate flags and lit up by floodlights at night. He’s received death threats about the ugly monstrosity, but he told the Montreal Gazette this past spring that he won’t take the statue down, adding that “slavery was never an issue” and that Forrest “was not a racist.”

Welcome to Nashville, P.K.

So, let’s shift back to Halifax, where the debate over the polarizing Cornwallis statue reached a fever pitch this month with a series of protests by Mi’kmaw and non-aboriginal residents alike, the ugly disruption of one such gathering by the alt-right Proud Boys (and their subsequent dismissal from their Canadian Navy posts), and the mid-July gathering that saw the closest thing we’ve seen so far to a genuine compromise on this divisive issue.

At the very least, the conversation is happening. HRM Mayor Mike Savage has inserted himself and his council directly into the public discourse on this issue, addressing the “shrouded-Cornwallis” event and promising a decision within the coming months.

True, both Savage and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs are urging patience on the issue and trying to dissuade protestors from independently hauling down the statue themselves, as they had hoped to do on July 15 and have threatened to attempt in October if a formal solution isn’t reached by then.

Keep in mind, however, that change is already happening on this front. Cornwallis Junior High School was renamed Halifax Central Junior High School in early 2012. This past March, Pastor Rhonda Britton of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church announced that the house of worship would find a new title that didn’t glorify someone who, in her words, “oppressed our First Nations brothers and sisters.”

We’re getting there, and we can do it by using a method some folks in other parts of North America don’t even want to consider – namely, continuing the conversation.

Let’s keep talking, folks. And never forget that, by talking, we move a step closer to doing.

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Adam Cooke has been a staff writer and columnist for The Reporter since 1999. A native of L’Ardoise, Adam lives in Port Hawkesbury with his wife Cathy.