I want to share what was an incredibly moving and heartrending experience . It was per chance that I learned of the Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation that was taking place at Calvary Episcopal Church in the center of downtown Memphis.
The “Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation,” was 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”. 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.
The location of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s slave market stood less than 100 yards from the altar at Calvary. Rev Dorothy Sanders Wells said, in her opening address: “I understood that slave hands had helped build this place. 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.”
In the past few years, the Rhodes College History department and their students researched original sources for details of Forrest’s Memphis slave market, including the names of people who were bought and sold there. Members of the community took turns reading nearly 70 names and ages of people sold at the Slave Auction.
“Sarah, age 40.”
“Sally, age 18.”
“Joseph, age 4.”
“Clarissa, age 24.”
“Unnamed, age 18 months.”
The Calvary steeple bell tolled as the allotted names were read with trembling voices, and as the names were listed, one by one, members of the congregation began to stand. By the time the last name was read, everyone in the room was standing. Tears streaked faces; the sound of weeping was audible. A chorus of singing erupted belting out a 4-part harmony version of “Amazing Grace” and the harmonies were comforting and resounding.
Then the service continued. And for me, involved my heart and mind in a way that caused me to be jolted so suddenly. As Jewish person, and more so, as a Jewish person living in England, I have never identified as white. Sure, I am not anything other than white skinned. That is true. However, I most definitely do not feel white. But as a white skinned person, regardless of my own relationship with that experience, I appear as white to the outside world. And most definitely for the example that I am about to share:
Following the reading of the names, the congregation joined in a litany for forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. In the reading there was a section entitled: People not of African descent. That meant white people. People not of African descent confessed in taking part in the slave trade, owning slaves or otherwise profiting from the institution of slavery in North America. This meant people that looked like me. These were people who looked like me who committed cruel and oppressive acts, treated people as property, hurt people so inhumanely – with no justice.
The text continued. It said 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.”
My tears were uncontrollable. I sobbed.
Then the People of African descent prayed. They said: “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.”
I turned to my neighbour and we hugged each other tightly.
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. Public places must tell the truth.
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, this remarkable church service attempted to follow King’s example of lifting up the forgotten.