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)

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