Confederacy in the 'Hood

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Civil War, Confederacy, Nathan Bedford Forrest, monuments, public history

For two-and-a-half years, Benjamin Israel, an African-American Orthodox Jew, attended every meeting of the city council in Hollywood, Florida, to talk about street names. (Every meeting, he corrected me, apart from when he was too “laid low” by lung cancer treatments to make it.) 

Israel had grown up on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem during the terrible years of New York’s drug epidemics. His father, who was Jewish, had fled religious persecution in Ethiopia. Eventually he made it to New York on a merchant ship and met Israel’s mother, who worked as a maid. After school, Israel had to clean up after the addicts who used the foyer of his building as a toilet. Still, he loved Manhattan, but when his bronchitis got worse, his uncle took him to Florida for a week’s vacation. He could breathe and he never left. 

Now Hollywood, a medium-size city between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, is his home. At every city commission meeting, Israel, his hair growing white under his yarmulke, made the same point. The town’s Confederate street names had to change. Three names in particular: Lee Street, after Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army and leader of the South’s fight for secession; Forrest Street, after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a confederate general, slave trader and later the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard; and Hood Street, after John Bell Hood, a Confederate general known for his aggression during the civil war. All three streets ran through Liberia, the historically black district of Hollywood. The city commission gave Israel three minutes to speak each time. His passionate speeches were often sandwiched between residents complaining about slow traffic or Airbnb regulations. 


Benjamin Israel told me that the street named after Nathan Bedford Forrest bothered him the most. He told the commissioners that, too. Sometimes the commissioners were supportive of his ideas. Sometimes he could feel their condescension. One told him that maybe they could just take an ‘r’ out of Forrest to make it Forest Street. “Why not stab me in the back and take the knife out just a little?” Israel asked him. Nathan Bedford Forrest sold thousands of black slaves out of a “Negro Mart” in downtown Memphis, often advertising that his merchandise came “directly from Congo.” A newspaper describes him whipping a slave stretched out between four men. Another time, Forrest whipped a naked woman with a “leather thong dipped in salt water.” At the start of the civil war, Forrest enlisted as a private; he ended the war as a general. One of his most notorious victories came at Fort Pillow, a Union garrison Forrest had decided to attack for supplies. The Union forces holding the fort included a large number of African-American soldiers. Some had been Forrest’s former slaves. Forrest and his three thousand men singled out the black troops for particularly vicious attacks, refusing to accept their offers of surrender. 

Read entire article at 1843 Magazine