By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — Dead people from the 1870s yellow fever epidemic were reportedly buried in unmarked graves on park land that once stood a hospital and a memorial to an infamous Confederate general, Atty. Van D. Turner Jr. discovered during his research.

“It’s just been quite interesting learning the full history of the park,” said Turner, referring to the former Forrest Park, now Health Sciences Park. 

That parcel of land is in the medical district. Once a memorial to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, now brims with new life.

“The park has always been a park of death,” said Turner, president of Memphis Greenspace, Inc., a nonprofit maintaining the park. “Now it’s become a park of life and vibrancy…of new beginnings…and celebrates life.”

“Life and vibrancy” were on display during Father’s Day weekend when the Memphis Juneteenth Festival celebrated “freedom” and “life” on the grounds that Turner once avoided and protested “what it stood for and how painful it was for my father and his generation.”

On Friday, June 24, Turner announced that Memphis Greenspace is partnering with Telisa Franklin Ministries to manage Health Sciences Park. Franklin is a businesswoman, a well-known marketer, and the festival’s president. 

Turner is still president of Memphis Greenspace, which he formed in October 2017 to legally remove the Confederate monuments to Forrest and Jefferson Davis, formerly known as Confederate Park and renamed Fourth Bluff Park. 

“We’re happy with this new partnership with her,” said Turner, now contracting with Franklin to promote Health Sciences Park and enrich the green space with various activities throughout the year. 

The treelined park is conducive for all kinds of events and activities. “I think this is really a goldmine for the city,” Turner said. “I think Mrs. Franklin is the right one to carry that vision forward.”

Franklin has accepted the challenge. Now she’s gung-ho about bringing her ideas to fruition. Two callers, she said, have already expressed interest in renting the park. Turner, in his appraisal of Franklin, touted what she’s already done to unite people around an idea.

“That spot of land represented death,” Franklin said. “But in the last two years (during Juneteenth festivities), we were able to see people laugh…hug…people of different races coming together.”

Franklin said the park is for everybody in Memphis and Shelby County. “We’re not excluding anyone,” she said. “We’re going to create synergy and positive energy in that park.”

The stigma no longer vexes Franklin. However, in past years, she said she’d park her vehicle along the fringes of the park and just sit there. Like Turner, she was protesting, refusing to take a stroll.

The memorial to Forrest would kindle Franklin’s ire, often reminding her of what the Confederate general and slaveowner stood for. Now the equestrian statue of Forrest is gone, along with the remains of Forrest and his wife. 

While it wasn’t widely known, Turner said Forrest was exhumed and buried four times. 

After his death in 1877, Forrest was buried at Historic Elmwood Cemetery, then in Forrest Park. Then he was reburied in an unknown location in the county. Finally, Forrest and his wife were reinterred in Columbia, Tenn. 

“It’s been quite the journey,” Turner said, adding, “If the park could only talk, (stories about it would unfold).”

Turner is telling a different story now: death is no longer a sidebar. He is giving Franklin the leeway to create new life in the park with monthly events and activities. 

“From this point going forward, it’s really going to be a story of joy. It’s going to be a story of resilience,” he said.  

Franklin said she’ll work to heal the land and mend hurting hearts. Education is the key, she said. But she won’t dwell on the dead. 

The aura of death will fade eventually, she said, and “life will return to the park.”