TENNESSEE: State defends GOP measure that protects Confederate monuments

Five years ago — as part of a backlash against efforts in Memphis to remove a statue of Ku Klux Klan-founder Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park — a Republican majority in the Tennessee Legislature enacted a new law aimed at preventing the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces.

The GOP amendment to the Heritage Protection Act requires cities and counties to seek approval from a state historical commission before any historic memorial — a monument, a street sign, a historic home — can be renamed, moved, sold or given away.

The City of Forest Hills, an affluent independent city located in southwestern Davidson County, is now seeking to test whether the law applies to subdivision streets, where roads are typically mapped out, constructed and named by individual developers without public input or approval before they become city streets.

“A city does not tell developers how they lay these streets out, where they should go or, more importantly, what to name them,” Marshall Albritton, an attorney representing Forest Hills argued Tuesday in Davidson County Chancery Court.

Complaints from local residents spurred Forest Hills officials to seek to rename six Confederate-themed street names located within the Tyne Valley Estates subdivision, where stately homes on the market for $3 million or more line “Confederate Drive” and “General Forrest Court,” “Robert E. Lee Drive” and “Jefferson Davis Drive.” (small cul-de-sacs are named “Robert E. Lee Court” and “Jefferson Davis Court.”)

The city is challenging a Tennessee Historical Commission’s decision declaring that the street names are memorials under state law, and therefore subject to the approval of 24 voting members — all appointed by the governor — before the city can rename them. The commission has only rarely granted permission for the removal or renaming of historical monuments in the past.

In its October decision, the commission did not consider whether to allow the city to rename the six streets; it decided only that the city did not have the right to rename the streets without first petitioning the state.

Amanda Callahan, an assistant attorney general defending the commission, said the historic preservation law is silent on the issue of when a memorial becomes public, but argued in court that was largely irrelevant for the streets in Forest Hills.

State law does not require that a memorial, including a street name, be originally named or dedicated by a public entity to be a public memorial, she said.

“What matters is the subject streets are on public property now,” she said, noting that city officials remain free to petition the historical commission for their approval to rename the streets.

Davidson County Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal reviews documents on Tuesday in a case addressing whether a municipality can change the names of streets named for Confederate generals. (Photo: John Partipilo)
 Davidson County Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal reviews documents on Tuesday in a case addressing whether a municipality can change the names of streets named for Confederate generals. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The lawsuit seeks a ruling allowing Forest Hills to rename the streets in Tyne Valley Estates without the historic commission’s approval, but the outcome of the case could have broader implications for suburban communities across Tennessee seeking to rid themselves of Confederate-themed street and subdivision names.

Across the nation, there are more than 1,400 streets named after Confederate leaders or the Confederacy, according to one academic study; it’s unknown how many of these are located in privately-developed Tennessee subdivisions.

On a separate track to its lawsuit, the city has also petitioned the historic commission for permission to change the street names — a process the city and the historic commission have agreed to put on hold pending a ruling on the lawsuit.

Chancellor Patricia Head Moskal, who presided over Tuesday’s court hearing, said she would take the case under advisement.