Episode 2

How should controversial historical figures be taught?

Jenn talks about her very first time filming a historical location and why she decided to choose someone as controversial as Nathan Bedford Forrest.

A statue dedicated to him was taken down in December of 2017, from the center of Memphis, Tennessee. Was it taken down the right way? What SHOULD be the way those kinds of statues are removed...should they be removed? How difficult is it for historians to see figures with terrible acts in their past in an objective light?

Nathan Bedford Forrest and His History

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Transcript
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greetings and welcome to the talk with

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History Podcast I am your host Scott and

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I'm here with my wife and historian Jen

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on this podcast we talk about

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history's continuing impact on all of us

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and our personal Journey even me and Jen

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through YouTube is we kind of go out

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with a family and explore and we record

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and we share our history walks with our

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subscribers and our community and the

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walk with history community so

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um so Jen what are we what are we

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talking today on the talk with History

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Podcast So today we're going to cover

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our very first video on walk with

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history okay so what was what was that

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what was our very first video that we

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made once you kind of recap that for

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anyone who hasn't seen it so the very

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first video for walk with history on

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YouTube is Nathan Bedford Forrest and

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we're going to talk about why he was the

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first video and

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then get into

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the man himself so okay

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before we do that I have a very

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important question okay why was Forrest

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Gump named after Nathan Bedford Forest

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because a lot of people don't realize

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that in the movie Forrest Gump that's

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who he's named after I think she says to

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remind him that sometimes people do

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things that just don't make no sense

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that's what she says right that's right

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yeah that's what she says yeah and I

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think

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and they're related to him right aren't

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they like distantly related to him and

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she wanted to name him after that to

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remind him that people do things

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sometimes that just don't make no sense

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like those are her words yeah and and I

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bring that up because I think that kind

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of ties that thread like you like to say

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ties through why you did yes

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to walk with history on on Nathan

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Bedford 4 so tell us how why that was

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our

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first one okay and kind of where that

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came from sure so we had just moved to

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Memphis in July of 2016.

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and

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Memphis was completely new for us so

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Scott is from California born and raised

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did some college in Maryland and then I

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am from all over but never the South

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even though I was born in North Carolina

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which is

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is the South but I was only there for

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two years and then we quickly moved to

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Hawaii and Wyoming and Pennsylvania

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so when we both moved to Memphis in July

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of 2016 we were really surrounded by a

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different culture

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and I wanted to start a Facebook page

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called walk with history for my family

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and and for your family and for our

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friends

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so we could kind of teach them about the

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history of Memphis and the surrounding

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areas that none of us really had been

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a privy to before so that was the whole

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point and the first video I did was

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Nathan Bedford Forrest and it's because

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of his statue that was right in the

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middle of the city of Memphis so I

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thought that would we would drive by it

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and we had no clue who he was until we

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lived in Memphis and we had no clue what

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even statue that was until we had to ask

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people and then we were like well who is

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this guy and why does he have a statue

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in the middle of Memphis and so that was

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really the emphasis of that video to

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kind of explain who he was why is the

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Statue here

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and what does it mean for the city

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yeah yeah and I think that's one of the

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cool things that a lot of people who've

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only seen walk with history the YouTube

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channel don't know is that was

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four or five years before we ever

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started walk with history on on YouTube

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right you just literally just grabbed

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your phone vertical video which drove me

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crazy yes and posted it up you made a

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Facebook page and you posted it up and

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you shared it with a bunch of friends

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and they thought it was interesting and

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all of a sudden you had all these

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friends like oh my gosh can I be part of

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this Facebook page and

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you you started Gathering like a mini

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following there I think you know I think

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today where there's a couple hundred not

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as many as the YouTube channel but

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there was interest there yes and

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videoing it vertically was a challenge

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then trying to make it our first YouTube

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video because we had to try to make that

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video that vertical video into a

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horizontal video for that first

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YouTube video but we I felt it was

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important to revisit

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that because in the last five years from

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the time I had done the original video

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to when we had done the YouTube video

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things had changed so what what things

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had changed um since I think you did the

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vertical the original video just the

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original walk in 2016. So what had

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changed between then and when we started

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well the statue had been removed that's

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right and there was still

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there was still talk because what the

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the interesting thing about the Nathan

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bedford's Forest statue is he's actually

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buried underneath it and his wife is

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buried underneath it so that caused a

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lot of

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difficulties because you had to also

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remove a grave and change a grave so

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there was a lot of legal proceedings

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that went with that so the statue had

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been removed for a long time the

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pedestal

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had not so I wanted to update viewers on

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what had happened since then and what

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was going to happen to the Statue and to

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the the bodies of Nathan Bedford Forrest

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and his wife yeah and and just to kind

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of reset the context of the scene is in

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2016 the video or the statue was still

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up there right you're going there and

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there was some stuff on the ground I

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think it was some black lives matter

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stuff that was on the ground that wasn't

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there until no that wasn't until later

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yeah in 2016 there was nothing yeah so

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in 2016 you did the original video the

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statue was up there and then fast

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forward a couple years when nationally

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there was a the black lives matter

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movement had kind of surfaced or

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resurfaced yes and statues all around

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the country specifically largely through

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the South for obvious reasons

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um Civil War era statues they people had

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been taking them down or arguing to take

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them down and all of a sudden Nathan

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Bedford Forest yes

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be gain Center Attention Center Stage in

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the Memphis area so tell us about Nathan

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Bedford Forest and kind of Briefly

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summarize

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who he was and what people did know or

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didn't know about him so he's a

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the confusing and interesting

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person first of all his statue is right

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in the middle of Memphis like rape

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beside Sun Studio so if you know

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anything about Memphis in the history of

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Memphis it's really known for its music

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history Sun Studios where Elvis Presley

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was originally recorded and that's what

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Johnny Cash did a lot of his recording

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so you can see the statue from Sun

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Studio so it was a very prominent statue

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in the city

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he was

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a slave trader and being a student of

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American history and getting my Master's

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in American history

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at the University of Memphis using that

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term slave trader

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comes under a lot of controversy because

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that term kind of equates to an equal

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trade of Commodities and when you're

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talking about trafficking people and

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selling people there really is no

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equality of commodity there so it really

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downplays

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what is really happening in that

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situation so I don't I might switch back

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and forth with my verbiage saying human

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trafficker or slave trader

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just so you understand really what he is

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doing so he what's he best known for I

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bet he's known for a couple things

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the slave trading he makes his millions

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in that then he becomes a confederate

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general in the Civil War right and

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that's what the statue depicted the

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statute depicted him on a horse in his

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Civil War uniform and he is a general of

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the Calgary in Tennessee and he is for

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all intents and purposes he is a good

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General in the fact that he is evasive

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and unable to be captured and can make a

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really strong fight and for those

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reasons Grant has a famous line that is

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called that that devil Forest because he

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was hard to capture and hard to overcome

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of course he never ends up winning you

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know the Civil War is not one so he

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comes back to Tennessee and starts to

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make his way in the railroad industry

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and then he is known for being the first

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Grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan so

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he's not known and that's what they

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depict in Forrest Gump and that's what

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they depict and that's really where the

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controversy came out in the 2019 time

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frame when all those statues were

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getting torn down that was the focus on

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the public and the media in the Memphis

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Area even I remember not being a history

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guy it was all over the news yes and

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that was the focus right it was Nathan

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Bedford Forrest the the first Grand

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Master of the Ku Klux Klan yes grand

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wizard Grand wizard um

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but there's a lot of context that the

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news and media doesn't give so that's

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that's what I said it's confusing he was

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not a originator of the Klu Klux Klan he

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did not start the Ku Klux Klan that was

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start it started in Polansky

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um Tennessee which is about I would say

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two hours to the east of Memphis and

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it's it's well documented there

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um the people who actually started the

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clan and then even

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there is no real direct

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documentation that shows him as the

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grand wizard there's a account

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of him being in a hotel in Nashville

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where a hotel room where they had

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gathered for a clan meeting and they had

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elected him the first Grand Wizard and

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someone gives that account now I don't

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think

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Forest ever

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um verifies that and agrees with that

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I do think that he was there is accounts

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that he is definitely evolved involved

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in the clan

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the clan had a different kind of

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beginning than what we think of it today

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it really was at first to stop

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Northerners coming down south and taking

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southern land and taking Southern jobs

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and so to push the carpetbaggers back

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but it was always violent and that's

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that was their means of stopping people

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and then then it definitely turned into

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a racial violence but you get

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Forest testifying at one point that he

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that some African-American men had been

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lynched and he said that him himself

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would go out with the party to catch the

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lynchers

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so I am I'm not arguing for or against

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forest in any way I have no ties to

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Forest or the area I always feel like an

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interloper when I talk about stuff like

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this because I am I'm definitely feel

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like a Yankee

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but I do want all the information out

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there because this was the confusing

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part for me

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learning about him as a student of

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American History at the University of

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Memphis is there was definitely things

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on both sides that I could see and

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I knew that he had done terrible things

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but I also in the end he gives a speech

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at a pallbearers Association

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in in favor of African Americans and

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African-American education and he's

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actually presented Flowers by an

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African-American woman and he kisses her

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on the cheek now I have professors that

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feel that that was all part of a scheme

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to get Workers for his railroad business

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but there's no verification of that so

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those are the things you have to you

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have to worry about as a historian is

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you can't just I think it was this well

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is there a document that said we that

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Forrest said I did this because I really

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just wanted people to come work for my

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Railroad

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it unless you have those things you're

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really just guessing as a historian yeah

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and I think

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from my perspective is watching you go

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through your graduate education and

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watching you learn about these things

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and you coming home and talking to me

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about them

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you know I started hearing this and I

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had the initial reaction that probably

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most people do and the people listening

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to this podcast is saying like well is

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she kind of being an apologizer for

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Nathan Bedford for us and I learned that

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that's not the case at all really what

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you're doing what a historian should do

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is consider and learn and talk about all

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the facts and like you've said try to

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remove your own personal bias

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so that's that's kind of the historian's

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job yes is is to do that and so I

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thought that was very interesting

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because this is a an incredibly

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uncomfortable subject for a lot of

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people yes and he was a very

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controversial figure for that part of

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his life for for um and so when the

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statues started getting taken down all

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throughout the South and the in 2019

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time frame that was a big thing in the

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Memphis Area they did in the middle of

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the night which a lot of people didn't

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agree with and and this that and the

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other so

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um that's one of the things that I found

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very interesting was

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something as uncomfortable and

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controversial as

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Nathan Bedford Forrest who many the only

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thing they really know him for is that

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if they know anything at all they might

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know him for Forrest Gump or as the

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first Grand wizard of the

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KKK yes and there was a lot more there

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not apologizing or not vouching for or

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against but

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taking the whole picture into account

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absolutely like so I was a part of a

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group that actually had a marker put up

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at the location a historic Market put up

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at the location where his business was

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his human trafficking business his slave

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trade business on Adams Avenue in

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Memphis we had a marker put up to

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emphasize

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this is how Nathan Bedford Forrest made

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his money he human trafficked people and

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in that ceremony which we did on the

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anniversary of the 50th anniversary of

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the Martin Luther King assassination the

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ceremony to dedicate that marker we read

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the names I say we I was in I was

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present there I didn't read any names

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that day one of my professors did though

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and a couple of my friends did

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researchers found the names I would

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think of

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I don't want to I don't know exactly 80.

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enslaved people that were sold

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by Nathan Bedford Forrest and I mean as

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young as six months old and I I cried I

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cried so I think he's a terrible person

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in that regard I do I I'm what a

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horrible thing to do to sell people

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but as a historian

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I believe that people

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can make up their own minds and my job

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is to give you the facts my job is to

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give you the facts of those names my job

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is to give you the facts of what he did

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in the Civil War what he did after with

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the clan what what is factual about that

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and then what is factual about the

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pallbearer speech and then you have to

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decide is this man

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did he have a a a second chance that he

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to have a change of heart did he decide

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that he was wrong in the end of his life

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do people get that chance in life I mean

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I'm not this is again I'm not

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saying one way or the other how I feel

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about Nathan Bradford 4 is I'm saying

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these are the facts and that's what a

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historian is supposed to do is give them

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to you so you can decide in the end

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the statue was taken down it was taken

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down at night I believe that if a statue

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is put up by the community it has every

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right to be taken down by the community

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especially if the community doesn't feel

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that that that exemplifies how they feel

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about something

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um but I think you and I have talked

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about this before taking it down at

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night I think sends the wrong message

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I think it should be taken down in the

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middle of the day and it should be taken

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down to Fanfare they these statues

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historically go up in great Fanfare they

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go up with great crowds of people

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and a lot of excitement and they should

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be taken down I feel in the same way

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because

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that should be how the community feels

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about it yeah yeah so I think it was an

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interesting one to start it was walk

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with history the our YouTube channel

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with

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um but you did a good job in relaying

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and I think clear you know shining a

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clear spotlight

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on all of the facts yeah and I I wanted

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to emphasize too that he that statute

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didn't go up until

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I can't remember now a little after the

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1900s he had already died and he had

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already been buried at Elmwood Cemetery

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with his wife so his body was moved and

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his wife body was was moved to that Park

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and at the time that Park was the

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outskirts of Memphis

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now it's like the center of Memphis but

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at the time it's the outskirts and it

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was private property and someone had

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paid for the Statue and had it all put

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up then of course that person passed

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away gifts the park to the city and then

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the city has to now have this

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controversial they build around it yes

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yeah and so he's he was not originally

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buried there

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and he has a daughter who actually dies

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Young from um and she's buried at

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Elmwood Cemetery

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and she's she stayed there so he

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originally was buried with his wife and

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young daughter and then they just moved

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him and his wife and left the young

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daughter there so no it was again it was

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a very interesting one and I think

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hopefully for the people listening today

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they learn a little bit about who Nathan

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Bedford Forrest was and more than just

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the namesake of Forrest Gump and someone

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who did something that doesn't make much

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sense as Forrest Gump's mother says and

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also kind of why use this kind of the

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origin story of walk with history this

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is why you started it you started it

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literally just because you enjoy

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sharing your knowledge with friends and

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family on interesting pieces of history

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and you did so literally just by walking

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out to where the statue was and and

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filming

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the only two things that I really think

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about when I think of that statue is

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without that statue I would never know

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who he was

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it was because we had moved there and we

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were driving around and I saw that

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statue and I go what is that who is that

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and Nathan Bedford Forrest who who was

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he and that's when I learned about him

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now I'm not saying that you need a

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statue to learn sure absolutely not but

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I found out more about him because of

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that statue

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I

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don't think the statue is being

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destroyed I think it's going to the sons

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of the Confederacy and Spring Hill

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Tennessee they have a home or a area

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where I think the statue is going and I

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think also the bodies are going there

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they're not even going back to Elmwood

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so

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I don't know if I buy into all of that

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you're destroying history you're taking

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down I I don't not the history doesn't

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get destroyed history does not get made

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by a statue doesn't get destroyed by a

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statue I also don't believe there's

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racism in a statue I believe it's a

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statue I think all the racism and hate

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you feel is in your heart and whatever

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you have learned about a certain person

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or about a certain thing in history it's

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it's what you have learned and what you

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see because if no one even knows who

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that person is looking at a statue of

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them is not going to make them see

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racism

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so I think there has to be a part where

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you were recognizing

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our education and whereas our education

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coming from and who's teaching us and

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what are the nuances that people are

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using for wording some of the the

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collective understanding as well

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Collective understanding and like I said

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like slave trade human trafficking like

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how are things being presented to us in

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an educational level to understand

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things so I think he was a great person

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to learn from in the beginning because

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he was so

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controversial

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and remind you that people again just

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like she says in Forrest Gump

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people do things that don't make much

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sense people do terrible things

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and then people do great things

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and

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when does when does one outweigh the

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other I don't know and I don't I will

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never make that decision but I will try

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to lay all the facts out for you so you

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can make them yeah well again uh thank

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you for kind of giving us your

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perspective on on history and sharing

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that hopefully those who are listening

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who may have seen the video in the past

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on the walk with history YouTube channel

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can either go check it out if you

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haven't seen it and if you have watched

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it before hopefully this provided a

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little bit more background and insight

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into why we started why that was the

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very first video

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and thank you for listening so please

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reach out to us on Twitter we have the

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Twitter handle at talk with history so

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just what I'd encourage folks to do if

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you guys are on that Medium is uh go on

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Twitter and tweet at us and tell us

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where in the world you were listening

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from I want to hear from her listeners

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out there where you guys are listening

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from what part of the country what part

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of the world you can find more of this

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podcast at talk with history.com and

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thank you and we'll talk to you guys

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again next week I'd be interested too if

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people knew who Nathan Bedford Forest

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was yes that would be an interesting if

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you could write if you could write did

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you know who he was yeah and where when

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did you learn about him because I did

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not yeah a little little Community poll

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there so so tweeted us at talk with

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history

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um let us know if you knew who Nathan

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Bedford Forest was where you guys are

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from and we look forward to connecting

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with you and talking with you next week

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thank you so much

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[Music]

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[Applause]

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foreign

About the Podcast

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Talk With History
A Historian and Navy Veteran talk about history inspired travels, their YouTube channel journey, and examine history through conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there

About your host

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Scott Bennie

Host of the Talk With History podcast, Producer over at Walk with History on YouTube, Editor of the Hashtag Historic newsletter.