Yesterday I wrote about the effort in Mississippi to create a special commemorative license plate honoring the legacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest–a Slave Trader, War Criminal, American Traitor and Domestic Terrorist.
In my post I gave short shrift to an important aspect of his career and I regret the error. So let me correct it.
I had mentioned that Forrest made a fortune as a slave trader before the Civil War and included an notice he ran advertising his “Negro Mart”:
And then I implied that after the Civil War he was a failure as a businessman. This is the slight of his record that I feel compelled to correct. Turns out that by the end of his life, Forrest was back in the slavery business and helped to create a model for stealing labor and keeping slavery alive under a different name. It was a very successful model that was replicated all over the South.
In the Mississippi River on the shores of Memphis sits President’s Island. Now it is an odd mix of industrial parks and wildlife areas.
Back in the 1870s Nathan Bedford Forrest saw it as an opportunity. During the Civil War the very fertile island became the home of escaping slaves and by 1865 a community of about 1,500 Freemen lived on the island. Like many other post war African American communities, it was a community that all but disappeared as white supremacists used terrorism and murder to in the words of NBF, “…keep the niggers in their place.” According to the history of President’s Island a 1947 article in the local Memphis paper explained that the former Freemen “were absorbed into the community”.
By the late 1860s, early 1870s Forrest had failed as a businessman running the Marion & Memphis Railroad into bankruptcy. As he failed in that business his involvement in the KKK gave him new opportunities. Somehow he managed to get control of the land on President’s Island and convert it into one of the South’s first prison work farms. Here, newly imprisoned Negros could be forced under the lash to grow corn and cotton. According to the President’s Island history, Forrest:
offered to pay the county 10 cents a day for each worker and to provide food, clothing and housing. His offer was accepted, and a five-year contract was signed.
Forrest was an entrepreneur who helped to create this model of buying and selling prisoners. His system for stealing labor kept slavery alive well into the next century (and some might fairly argue that the system of forced prison labor is still alive and well today–and there is a strong case for that POV).
Working conditions at Forrest’s
prison slave camp were horrible. Illness was very common and in an act of karma or divine humor, some folks speculate that NBF died because a case of dysentery he acquired from drinking impure water at his slave camp interacted badly with his diabetes.
After his his death–and despite Grand Jury investigations into stories of abuse–his son continued to run the family’s neo-NegroMart/prison farm business for years. And his family continued to live off stolen labor just as it had before the Civil War.
Nathan Bedford Forrest began his entrepreneurial life as a slave trader and died as a slave trader. I slighted him yesterday when I suggested that he was a failure in business after the Civil War. He was only a failure in legitimate business. When he figure out how to use terrorism to keep slavery alive under a new system–he did very well.
Perhaps it is his great creativity on how to steal the labor of others that makes him such a wingnut hero.
Fuck him and all the horses he rode in on.