One of the undercurrents of the ongoing Nathan Bedford Forrest Park controversy is the idea by some but not all of Forrest’s admirers and defenders that the Ku Klux Klan, of which Forrest was the first Grand Wizard, was an organization that guarded against the excesses of Reconstruction era changes in government.
The defense of Forrest includes the idea that “radical Republicans” and “carpetbaggers” were manipulating the post-war era and its restrictions on the voting rights of ex-Confederates to put people into office who were simply puppets for their interests.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, African-American citizens were elected to state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives across the South. The political gains came over a very short period. It was short enough that these elected officials are often footnotes to the later elections of African-American citizens from the late 1960s into the early and mid 1970s, approximately 80 years later.
Many of those in the later group have their achievements noted with the caveat that they were the first African-Americans elected “since Reconstruction.”
Just this week, we used the phrase in referring to the late A.W. Willis of Memphis, who was the first African-American state legislator in Tennessee since Reconstruction when he was elected to the Tennessee House in 1966.
Thanks to the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, we now have a ready source of information about that generally nameless and unseen group of black elected officials who held office during a volatile period in the 19th century, some of them former slaves. The website, “This Honorable Body,” is a valuable addition to Memphis history as well as state history.
Among those on the creative staff that put the site together is Shelby County Judicial Commissioner John Marshall.
The page is more than a collection of bios. There are timelines and documents and explanations that put the legislators in the context of their times. There is even a teachers’ guide.