Should toppled Carmack statue be repaired at Tennessee Capitol?

State troopers guard the toppled statue of Edward Ward Carmack outside the state Capitol on May 31, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Protesters over the weekend tore down the statue of Edward Ward Carmack, a newspaper editor and U.S. Senator who was gunned down in the streets of Nashville in 1908. Carmack was a notorious segregationist, though it’s unclear whether the demonstrators specifically targeted the monument (a historical marker commemorating Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 was also destroyed).

The toppling of the Carmack statue nevertheless raises questions about whether it should be repaired. There’s been a movement underfoot at the General Assembly to replace the monument with one to frontiersman David Crockett, though those efforts have yet to make any significant progress.

The situation puts Republicans in a quandary. While most would no longer defend Carmack’s positions and statements, they also won’t want to accede the destruction wrought by demonstrators. On the other hand, taking affirmative action to restore the statue of an avowed racist would also prove problematic at best.

A recent edition of The Tennessee Journal delved into Carmack’s attacks on Ida B. Wells, who was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize last month for her coverage of lynchings in Memphis and the South.

New Pulitzer Prize winner Ida B. Wells was viciously targeted by Carmack

Ida B. Wells, who gained international renown for her fearless reporting about lynching in Memphis and the South in the 1890s, has been awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Wells was the editor and a part-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, where she wrote detailed reports and fiery editorials about extrajudicial violence against African-Americans.

One of Wells’ chief critics was Edward Ward Carmack, the editor of the Memphis Commercial who went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and was later gunned down in Nashville by the son of a political rival. Carmack, a statue of whom stands outside the southern entrance of the state Capitol, ran vicious editorials about the Free Speech while it was operating and about Wells after she fled the city amid threats of personal harm.

Wells was born a slave in Mississippi during the Civil War and was a teacher in Memphis before she had a run-in with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in 1884, when she was removed from a train for refusing to leave a first-class car (for which she held a ticket) that was reserved for white passengers.

State law required “accommodations equal in all respects and comfort” for first-class ticket holders, and a circuit judge found the other car was of lesser grade because it allowed “smoking and drunkenness.” Wells was awarded $500 (more than $13,500 today). The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the decision three years later, finding the two rail cars were equipped alike and that Wells’ had acted in bad faith by seeking to “harass” the railroad by creating conditions for which she could file a lawsuit. Wells gained acclaim in the black press for her firsthand accounts of the legal challenge, and began making writing about race issues her full-time job.

In the pages of the Free Speech, Wells took aim at a frequent pretext for lynchings. “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men rape white women,” she wrote in 1892. If white men weren’t careful, Wells wrote, the public would reach conclusions that would be “very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”

The Memphis Commercial, May 26. 1894.

Carmack’s Commercial denounced the article as “dangerous sentiment,” adding it was a testament to the patience of Southern whites that “a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies.” The editorial warned the writer’s allegations had pushed public patience to the “very outermost limit.” The paper ominously concluded with: “We hope we have said enough.”

Wells fled town for the Northeast, where audiences were horrified by her speeches and pamphlets about lynching in the South. Her examination of statistics found rape wasn’t even an accusation in two-thirds of the lynchings. Carmack’s Commercial followed Wells’  growing reputation with dread, publishing vitriolic stories denouncing her as a fraud and a liar.

Wells had never been the editor of the Free Speech, the paper claimed in late 1892, but rather the mistress (a “black harlot”) of the man who was. In 1894, the Commercial took aim at “gullible audiences easily duped” by what it called Wells’ slander while on a lecture tour of Great Britain. Mob justice was an “unfortunate state of affairs,” the paper claimed, but it had grown out of the “noblest sentiments” of protecting white women’s virtue against “an inferior race.”

While the Commercial’s editorials were carried in some British newspapers, they did little to change public opinion galvanizing against lynching in Memphis and the South. The damage to the city’s reputation was a worrying development for cotton merchants in Memphis who feared it could hurt demand among their biggest clients in the English textile industry.

The Commercial absorbed the Appeal-Avalanche in 1894, and Carmack left to make a successful bid for Congress in 1896. In the ensuing years, the paper’s editorial stance shifted to the point where the Commercial Appeal won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for its coverage of the bigotry and violence of the Ku Klux Klan, making it the first newspaper in the South to win the award.

Wells eventually settled in Chicago, where she helped lay the groundwork for the NAACP, though she later broke with the group because she disagreed with what she saw as a too cautious approach.

View of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, showing open gates and the statue of Edward Ward Carmack (Image: Tennessee State Library and Archives)

54 Responses to Should toppled Carmack statue be repaired at Tennessee Capitol?

  • Avatar
    Lance Persson says:

    Is there any way that the people who did this can be identified and prosecuted? Hard to believe that in this day and age there were not video cameras that recorded the incident. Not repairing the statue simply encourages repeated similar attacks. That to me is unacceptable. We should never encourage these types of destructive actions.

    • Lance, go to your corner for a long time out for allowing yourself to once again type the toys from your brain. Whoever let you use their keyboard needs to go to jail with rioters

    • Im a direct descendant of Edward Carmack. Somehow, Ida wells is the hero. From the little Ive gathered about her, she was the Al Sharpton of her day, and extremely controversial. Because a lot of his descendants moved to Hawaii, a lot of us dont know much about him. However, I did find out he was beloved by many, the Lyman Theatre had to turn people away after filling to capacity, at a tribute for him shortly after his death

    • Exactly.

      • Avatar
        Beverly says:

        I’m late to the game here, just saw this article. Kenneth, I was wondering how you are a direct descendent of Carmack? He had one son that I don’t think had any children, so where do you fit in the tree?

  • Avatar
    Stuart I. Anderson says:

    DON’T ACCEDE TO THE VANDALS IN ANY WAY! Put them in jail for six years so they get out in two if they behave and restore that which they destroyed INCLUDING THE CARMACK STATUE ASAP so the fruits of their vandalism is at least two years out of their lives if they behave behind bars.

  • Avatar
    Charles says:

    Prosecute the vandals. Maybe place the Carmack statue somewhere else. I hear there is still room in the landfill.

  • Avatar
    James White says:

    Yes, repair Everything the terrorists destroys, do Not let them win.

  • Why was this area not protected? The State Capitol! What a disgrace by Metro.

  • First… bring the perpetrators of this violent act to JUSTICE.
    Second… allow private donors to repair or remake if so desired. No tax money.
    Third… remove to a historical museum or leave as is… where is… and quarter-off the area with a monument stating the historical facts as presented in your article or which can be verified historically.
    History will therefore accurately record the events for the statute’s RISE and FALL… allowing future citizens to draw their own conclusion.
    In our quest for JUSTICE… let us not become UNJUST. WHY? Because “IT MATTERS…”

  • Avatar
    John Langston says:

    He was a Democrat and racist who tried to kill Ida B. Wells. I say no.

    • Avatar
      Cannoneer2 says:

      There is another statue that honors a Democrat and racist up on Capitol Hill, Andrew Jackson. How many thousands of Native Americans did he kill? I don’t see anyone trying to take that statue down.

      • Avatar
        Susan says:

        Old Andy wasn’t just a Democrat he’s considered the founder of the Party. If we are going to take down all the historic statues of Democrats who were racists they would all have to go. Why don’t we just leave them all up and stop trying to judge 19th century people on 21st century standards?

        My favorite fact about the Carmack story and the placement of the statue is that it is sitting squarely on top of Motlow Tunnel. Carmack was a vocal prohibitionist and the Motlows are the family that inherited Jack’s little distillery down in Lynchburg and made it big.

    • Idiot. Research the man, don’t just go by one biased article!! Democrats back then WERE the Republicans!! Read about why he was assassinated and the killers didn’t serve time. Educate yourself!

    • Oh BS! Educate yourself!! His sword was his pen, idiot!

  • Avatar
    Yvonne says:

    No, if we are going to place a stature there, lets pick someone worthy of being memorialized.

  • Avatar
    Cathey Estes says:

    Vandalism is not to be tolerated, it is a crime and punishment should be given.
    I believe it’s time for a new statue, Davy Crockett would do well! A great American who received his education from the world around him. A soldier, politician, congressman and prolific storyteller, Davy seemed to never give in to challenge or life’s adversities but pushed through with purpose……dying for his country as a true Tennessean in the great state of Texas.

  • Avatar
    Peter Pallesen says:

    Um, how about a Wells statue?

  • Avatar
    steve cates says:

    Carmack should never have been memorialized there in the first place. Give it some space in the State Museum with a full explanation of the whole story of its placement and removal. There are others more deserving, individuals as well as groups.

    • Avatar
      wendy clair says:

      Agreed. Simply because people managed to get a statue of him erected and it stood there for a time isn’t a good reason to keep it there. It can’t be denied that he was racist and it’s not surprising that there’s been talk of taking it down. I hope they replace it with Davy Crockett as has been mentioned before.

  • Avatar
    Beatrice Shaw says:

    Do away with all racist statues and anyone that is enabling racism should go to jail for six years. Vandalizing a monument or using violence and threats of violence not the right way, however.

  • Avatar
    Henry Walker says:

    Good story on a now, little known historical figure in Tennessee. What’s missing, however, is any explanation of the reasons that the statue was put there in the first place.

    • Avatar
      Grace Gary says:

      The statue was paid for by funds raised and contributed by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Senator Carmack was a strong proponent of prohibition and traveled the state speaking on its behalf.

      In the past it was much easier to get statues placed on the grounds of the capitol. Sometime around the 1960s most were removed. Why Senator Carmack survived that purge is a mystery.

    • Exactly! These people don’t have a clue about him or why he was assassinated! He was for prohibition. These idiots go by one biased article!! Democrats back then WERE the Republicans!! Read about why he was assassinated and the killers didn’t serve time.

  • Avatar
    Eddie White says:

    If a city or state is going to make a change to a statue, it should be decided by knowledgeable and reasonable people through a reasoned democratic process. The fact that this statue was illegally removed by thugs, gives me reason to return the statue to its proper place. Once again I ask, where were the proper authorities responsible for protecting the capital?

  • Avatar
    Stuart I. Anderson says:

    There may very well be a time to discuss the replacing of the statue but THIS IS NOT THE TIME! It is bad enough that the police in too many areas are not punishing the vandals. Failure to resurrect the Carmack statue now is actually going from not punishing them to actually rewarding them for their acts (provided that their act was the product of intellectual intent rather than wanton destruction which admittedly is debatable and unknowable).

    • Avatar
      Paul Logan says:

      The “vandals” did the city a favor and should be given an award. The terrorist s sho put it there in the first place, and state politicians protecting this garbage are the bad guys.

  • Avatar
    Susan says:

    I would whole heartedly support replacing Carmack with Ida B Wells. She really is not “a little know historical figure” especially as she was also a Suffragist and Tennessee’s role in the women’s right to vote just had its centennial. I’ve known and admired her for years. Ida was a Republican and a staunch supporter of gun rights. If we had an Ida Wells statue that recognized her role in the African American community, the women’s rights community, the 2A community and that recognized she was a Republican the unveiling would be amazing! She is the single person that every political persuasion in the state could find a reason to support. Nobody gets everything, but everybody gets something. A nice compromise for a deserving woman.

  • Avatar
    Charles says:

    Labeling people of that era as Democrats or Republicans (or Whigs) shouldn’t be a factor, since the parties today are not the parties of that time. Don’t use that means of judging. Also, it should not be necessary for someone to attack another person expressing an opinion here.

    • Avatar
      Susan says:

      I am old enough to have had grandparents who were born in the 19th century. Republicans. I know what they believed, I know what stuck with their children and what was taught to me. I was bused in the 70s. It was the Democrats in this city that went bananas and Republicans like my mom that supported it and stood up for it and never changed. No, the parties didn’t “switch places.” You can go read your revisionist history, but your history is compared to my real life experience and I won’t be gaslighted because you are in denial and refuse to embrace your own past.

  • Avatar
    Donna Locke says:

    Get rid of it and rename Carmack Boulevard in Columbia as well.

  • Carmack taught temperance something most do not practise today. Repair and replace then arrest terrorists who are funded by outside U.S. interest. As Americans do not negotiate with terrorists. Remember that’s why you sent Gen. Sherman to burn us out back during the War of Northern Aggressions.

    • Avatar
      US patriot1 says:

      The honorable gen. Sherman a true hero – should have burned all of your homes and sent all of you racists to hell where you always belonged.
      Traitors then and now!!

  • Avatar
    Randy Hendon says:

    Repair the Monument and return- if you don’t – you are supporting the Riots and destruction in Nashville and other American cities! He was a US Senator and prominent Tennessean – he was not perfect but history
    is often a sad story- do not fall for this attempt to change the past of this great State.

  • Avatar
    Justme says:

    Photos taken at the scene show two white men working to take the statue down – just in case that changes anyone’s zeal for punishment.

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  • Avatar
    HD Nichol says:

    Many facets to the history of Carmack were dedicated by his statue, and these days they all gravitate to the scorn of those disagreeing with parts of his legacy because it fits their narrow narritive anything ‘Confederate’ was bad. Carmack also conflicted with his foes by pushing for prohibition. But his views were widely accepted and historically documented and favorable enough to win the election he sought. In dying he stood up to a father and son gun battle downtown Nashville; his death avenged when the acquitted son met his demise by Carmichael’s relatives, cousins on my Mom’s side of my family. My Dad’s ancestor provided funds to the city of Nashville to buy the land for the purpose of locating the Capital building on that site. If you must replace statues for erecting a likeness of someone that does not offend anyone, maybe just set up some likenesses of Cro-Magnon Neanderthals… Certainly that would be a step forward for all the idiots advancing the cause for keeping themselves hopped up on intoxicants and stimulants, because they don’t care about history or evolution!

  • Avatar
    HD Nichol says:

    Edward Ward Carmack, RIP. Dying once wasn’t enough already.

    • This is a crying shame. Joe called and told me. To say I’m furious is an understatement. Nothing is sacred, history can’t be rewritten, nor should it be. This article is one sided and the author is telling half truths.

      They need to find these vandals and make them pay.

  • Avatar
    jing real says:

    No one says toppling those statues of adolf hitler or lenin a crime or vandalism.
    Putting such rubbish in front of the state capitol is obscenity in the first place.

  • Avatar
    Mike kernell says:

    I sponsored and passed a resolution to place a statue of David Crockett in a most prominent place . I wanted to see the historians replace Carmack.
    Another resolution was later pased with more definitive instructions.
    Carmack may be replaced by David Crockett who defended the Cherokees and was against the Cherokee removal.
    Let’s hope.

    Mike Kernell
    State Rep. 1974- 2012

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  • Avatar
    Grace Gary says:

    Senator Edward Ward Carmack was my father’s grandfather’s first cousin. The statue should have come down a long time ago.

  • Avatar
    Mark Holden says:

    Is there still a Nathan Forrest Drive in Hendersonville?If so,why?

  • Avatar
    Morgan P Ballou says:

    As a great great granddaughter of Edward Ward Carmack, I’m not upset at all that this statue came down. I apologize for the acts of my ancestors.

    • I am his great great grand niece and I don’t apologize for things I didn’t do. That’s absurd. He was for prohibition. Think what this country would be like without the damage alcohol has done to families. His killers didn’t serve a day in jail. That should make you feel better.

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