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.
Hollywood, Florida, wasn’t so much founded as conjured. After failing to find gold in the Yukon, in January 1920 a 38-year-old developer named Joseph Young came to a scrubby patch of land north of Miami to find yet another fortune. The land, wedged between two farm towns and covered in palmetto and jack pines, did not, at first, look promising.
But it didn’t matter. Young drew up elaborate plans for the new city, unironically based on Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s redesign of Paris, with wide streets, circles and boulevards, and lakes deep enough for yachts. (Young claimed he didn’t call Hollywood after the California city; he simply liked the name.) In just five years, the town had a railway station, a country club, a department store and an ice plant. It was the 1920s, and America was the richest country in the world, brimming with pensions, paid holidays and new cars. In search of paradise, Americans rushed to Florida: two-thirds of the state’s real estate was sold to people who had never even been there.
Young, who was not from the South, was by all accounts not a racist man. But when the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in the years following 1915, its strongest and most violent branch was in Florida. On the day of the 1920 presidential election, just a few months after Young bought the land for Hollywood, the KKK in Ocoee, Florida, murdered almost 60 African-Americans. Ocoee’s surviving black community hid in the marshes, while Julius “July” Perry hung from a telephone pole, next to a sign: “This is what we do to niggers who try to vote.” Floridians lynched at least 161 blacks between 1890 and 1920 – a rate three times higher than Alabama and twice as high as Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana. Florida’s state constitution disenfranchised black people and forbade white teachers from teaching them.
Jim Crow laws also forbade black people from living next to white people. So in 1923, Young built a separate town for the black residents, one he called Liberia, a city black people could run themselves. On the plans for the city, Liberia is forty square blocks and has boulevards, a large round park and a hotel. Young donated land for schools and churches. He named the streets after cities with prominent black populations, like Atlanta, Raleigh, and Charlotte, and named the park Dunbar, after the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.
But Young’s vision for Liberia was never realised. He ran out of money after a 1926 hurricane decimated Hollywood. Black residents lived in substandard housing, often in crowded tents. And soon after, Young’s street names were mysteriously changed throughout the city. In Liberia, three streets named to honour cities with robust black communities – Louisville, Macon, and Savannah – were renamed after Confederate generals who had fought to keep blacks enslaved.
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.
“The slaughter was awful,” a Confederate sergeant wrote. “Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees and with uplifted arms scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down.” One black soldier pleaded for his life to a Confederate soldier chasing him. “God damn you, you are fighting against your master,” the soldier said. The soldier then raised his gun and shot him. Forrest himself wrote that the river was dyed with blood for 200 yards. “It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that Negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners. We still hold the fort.”
Unsurprisingly, losing the war didn’t change Forrest’s mind about black people, and he soon became the KKK’s first Grand Wizard. Forrest defended the Klan in Congress in 1871, arguing that black people were being “insolent” and ladies were being “ravished.” The KKK had simply been formed to “protect the weak.” As Michael Newton has described, a journalist stopped Forrest on his way out of the hearing: “with a wink, the Grand Wizard told him, ‘I lied like a gentleman.’” Black people’s post-civil war hopes, which had, as Newton explained, manifested themselves so energetically in new schools, self-improvement groups, and civic organisations, were soon crushed.
None of this history is remotely secret. None of this history is even much contested anymore. And it’s why, Israel told me, Forrest Street particularly bothered him. I had to agree. I couldn’t understand why anyone in modern America would want to commemorate him.
And then I remembered Shelby Foote.
I first came across Nathan Bedford Forrest, like many of my generation, in Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary, “The Civil War”. When I was in fifth grade, watching the nine-part documentary every night was my homework. The series told the story of the civil war through old photos, letters read aloud by actors, and appearances by historians. The program was a huge hit, attracting more than forty million viewers – the largest-ever audience for PBS. Of the talking-head experts interviewed in the documentary, none was so prominent as Shelby Foote. Foote was a novelist before he became an historian, spending twenty years writing his three-volume history of the civil war by hand. He was what my grandmother would call “a character”: he drank whiskey and wrote with a dip pen, complaining that he could no longer find blotters. In the documentary, he often paused to look away from the camera, as if he were turning over events in his mind’s eye. He spoke with what has been described as “a mellow, sippin’-whisky Mississippi accent." (His accent often draws alimentary comparisons; one commentator described it as “molasses over hominy"; another “as thick and sweet as Tupelo honey”.) Foote appeared in the documentary eighty-nine times.
Foote kept a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest on his wall, and claimed that “Forrest is one of the most attractive men who ever walked through the pages of history.” In his telling, Forrest becomes an almost sympathetic figure. Foote described how at 16, Forrest had to raise six brothers and sisters when his father died. “He became a slave trader," Foote said, “because that was a way of making enough money to support all those people and to get wealthy." Burns’s camera often lingered on photographs of Forrest, a handsome man with thick hair and a frosty stare.
Foote was hardly the first to lionise him. After the war, people began to think of Forrest, now the leader of the KKK, as one of the great heroes of the South, a man they could look up to without shame. A 20-foot-tall statue of Forrest went up in Memphis, and his body was exhumed to join it in a park that bore his name. Across the country, thousands of monuments were raised to southern civil war veterans, as part of the “Lost Cause," the idea that the civil war was fought over everything but slavery. There were, according to historian James Loewen, more monuments to Forrest in the state than anyone else in its history – including Tennessean President Andrew Jackson.
A street name is a kind of monument, too; in the South, more than a thousand streets bear the names of Confederate leaders. But it’s not just the South. Streets on an army base in Brooklyn are named after Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Ohio, a Union State, has three streets named after Confederate generals; Pennsylvania, another Union State, has two. A district in Alaska, along the Bering Sea in an area that is 95% Alaska Native, was until recently named after Wade Hampton, one of the South’s largest slaveholders, a lieutenant-general of the Confederate cavalry, and later, governor of South Carolina. So it’s not just about the vanquished honouring their heroes. America seemed to want to celebrate the Confederacy even though the Confederates had fought to destroy America itself. Why?
In July 1913, almost 50 years after the Confederate surrender, more than 50,000 veterans from 48 states arrived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for a reunion. The Battle of Gettysburg, a Union victory, was a turning point in the war. More than 40,000 men died in the battle. To house and feed the returning veterans, a 280-acre camp was built, serving 688,000 meals made by 2,170 cooks, using more than 130,048 pounds of flour. Five-hundred electric lights lined the nearly 50 miles of battlefield.
As exquisitely told by the historian David Blight, the gathering of soldiers from both sides of a bloody affair was soaked in the language of reconciliation. Men looked for the soldiers who had shot them in battle. One former Union and one former Confederate apparently went to a local hardware store and bought a hatchet, literally burying it in the fields. Far from contentious, the reunion portrayed the civil war as strengthening the United States. Again, it wasn’t just a story from the Deep South. At the time of the reunion, Blight notes, the Washington Post wrote that to the extent slavery was a “moral principle,” the “burden of responsibility should be shouldered by the North for its introduction.” The San Francisco Examiner proclaimed that “we know that the great war had to be fought, that it is well that it was fought, a necessary, useful, splendid sacrifice whereby the whole race of men has been unified.” The New York Times hired Helen Longstreet, the widow of a Confederate general, to report romantic conversations between the former foes at the reunion.
The grand reconciliation story left out obvious players in the civil war: former slaves. Although black people had long come to Gettysburg for their own reunions, their presence there was barely tolerated. Newspapers criticised the black tourists, calling their celebrations a “scene of general debauch” with headlines like “Gettysburg Witnesses Annual Orgy”. There is no evidence that a single black soldier attended the 1913 reunion. As Blight points out, just a week after he spoke at the Gettysburg Reunion, President Wilson ordered separate bathrooms for blacks and whites working in the Treasury Department. “In America, we reconciled the nation and the decades following the American civil war on the backs of the former slaves, at the cost of racial justice,” David Blight has argued in an interview about his work. The Jim Crow system that arose in the South ultimately with the complicity of the North, “was,” he added, “part and parcel of the way Americans were putting themselves back together in the wake of the Civil War."
It wasn’t that the North and South left the suffering of black people out of the civil war narrative; instead they made that suffering its foundation.
At the Hollywood city commission meetings, Israel’s point about Forrest and the street names never changed, but he came up with different ways to say it. Sometimes he talked about the civil war; sometimes he read aloud from the Gettysburg address. He told them how Lee, Forrest, and Hood wanted to destroy the very government the commissioners had pledged allegiance to. At other times he raged about the “cruel joke” of re-naming streets in a black neighbourhood after Confederate generals.
But many still seemed to be confused about why anyone would think of changing the names now. One resident, who owned Lee Street Apartments, stood in front of a sign for her building, talking to a reporter. “This history took place 200 years ago,” she said. “So what’s wrong?”
Memorialising the past is just another way of wishing about the present. The trouble is that we don’t always share the same memories. And not everyone has an equal opportunity to enshrine their group’s memory on the landscape. As the novelist Milan Kundera has said, “the only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten.” The growth of the civil war monuments peaked twice: first, in the early 20th century, when Jim Crow laws were being made, and then again in the 1950s and 1960s when the laws were being challenged. “These statues were meant to create legitimate garb for white supremacy,” historian James Grossman has said. “Why would you put a statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in 1948 in Baltimore?” The street names in Hollywood themselves were probably changed at the peak of the KKK’s dominance.
But memory can change. The myth of a grand reconciliation, already chipped, has begun to shatter. In 2015, Dylann Roof killed nine African-American parishioners in a Charlestown church with the aim of igniting a race war. (The church was on Calhoun Street, named after the great hero of the Confederates, John C. Calhoun, a man who believed that slavery was a “positive good”.) A series of high-profile police killings of African-Americans helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. Donald Trump’s election galvanised it further.
Monuments to Confederate heroes became a physical testament of the absurdity of the Lost Cause, and the growing awareness of deeply systemic racism. The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, who removed all of New Orleans’ Confederate memorials, explained that they “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitised Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” Dozens of cities announced that they, too, were removing their Confederate statues. The statue of Forrest in his hometown of Memphis was taken down in 2017; his park has since been renamed Health Sciences Park, after the organisation that manages it.
In Hollywood, the city commission soon became more interested in Benjamin Israel’s argument. At a special workshop about the street names, the question was raised of who would pay for the changes. Technically, each name change cost $2,000. Laurie Schecter, who had grown up in Hollywood and now runs a small hotel, raised her hand and said she would pay the fees. (Schecter, who applied for the name change alongside activist Linda Anderson, would ultimately pay more than $20,000 to the city in connection with the street names, including paying for the new signs.)
When the commission debated the proposed changes, hundreds of supporters gathered outside. Counter-protesters waved Confederate flags at the crowd, shouting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Florida State representative Shevrin Jones said he was told “to go back to where I came from, called the n-word and a ‘monkey’.” A white supremacist was arrested for charging at the crowd with a flagpole. “You are a cancer on the face of the earth," he shouted at one protester. “All Jews are!"
But defenders of Confederate street names rarely use overtly racist rhetoric. The legacy of civil war memory is far more complicated than that. In a streaming feed of the hearings on the street names, I watched residents speaking for and against the change for several hours. Many argued that the names were racist; others just saw them as a neutral fact, a kind of physical history lesson. (Forrest Gump’s mother apparently fell into this camp: the film’s character was strangely named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, to remind him that “sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.”) Some thought the question should be put to a vote of people who lived on the streets. Another group groused about changing their addresses on their bills and IDs – even though changing the address would take fewer hours than, say, waiting in line to speak at the meeting.
For others, keeping the civil war history on the signs was a way of clinging to a heritage they believed was romantic – it was part of their collective memory, a heritage they felt they could admire while still rejecting the evils of slavery. It reminded me of an interview I saw Shelby Foote give once from his cosy study in Memphis. The interviewer closed by reading out an audience question about his “lovely voice”.
“People always talk about southern voices,” Foote told him, chuckling. “It all comes out of our having had what we called coloured nurses when we were growing up. We get this from the blacks. That’s where it all comes from...I realised by the time I was 21 years old that every morsel of food I ever ate, every piece of fabric I ever had on my back, every hour of education, it came out of black labour.” His nurse, Nellie Lloyd, had meant more to him than his mother, or his aunts and uncles put together. “It’s all the black experience..That’s what the Delta was. I was raised in a black society,” he continued. “They weren’t running it, but they were doing it.”
I thought it a telling statement by the man who worshipped Nathan Bedford Forrest. Foote somehow thought he could honour both the black people who toiled for his every need and the man who sought to enslave and murder their ancestors. That he was able to reconcile these two ideas in his mind seemed a metaphor for the civil war memory debate, a metaphor reflected in the speeches of residents of Hollywood who defended the street names. One woman who spoke at the Hollywood meeting said, “we must take care of our children and tell them of our history. Teach them how to forgive, how to love, how to have compassion, how to show empathy. Tearing down the names of Hood and Lee, that don’t change nothing. It doesn’t change character.”
She got that right. By itself, a name change certainly doesn’t change character. But it might signal a changing memory. In 2018, the new signs went up: Liberty Street, Freedom Street, and Hope Street.
When I was reading up on Confederate street names, I came across an article about a 17-year-old girl at East Chapel Hill High School in my hometown in North Carolina. On Instagram, she posted a picture of herself and another student waving Confederate battle flags. The caption read “South Will Rise.” They had taken a trip to civil war battlegrounds with their teacher for a history course, and had just completed a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge, the ill-fated Confederate assault against the Union soldiers that came to symbolise the beginning of the end of the civil war. After the student posted the picture, one commenter wrote: “Already Bought my First Slave.” In response to criticism from fellow students and their parents, the flag-waving student posted an apology that sounded more like Lost Cause rhetoric. “I’m proud to be part of my state and I’m sorry my photo was so offensive but I find it appropriate in that I’m honouring heroes who fought to protect their homes and families.”
I remember the annual civil war trip. I went on it myself when I was in high school in Chapel Hill, more than 20 years ago. I re-enacted Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, too. (I had a different teacher.) We were away for three days, travelling over potholed roads and highways. I remember one student waving a Confederate flag and sometimes taping it to the window of the bus as we bumped along the back roads to the battlefields. I didn’t think my teacher knew, but I still didn’t say anything. As far as I can remember, I was the only African-American on that trip.
I was reminded of this trip when I spoke to Kevin Biederman, who sits on the Hollywood commission. We spoke shortly before the commission had to vote on the street-name changes. Commissioner Biederman told me he decided to walk along Lee, Hood, and Forrest streets, trying to drum up support for the street-name changes. One white family told him how they didn’t want the names to change, and that their neighbour, a black man, didn’t want them to change either. Their neighbour was just across the street, and they called him over to talk. He told Biederman how he worked two jobs and didn’t have the time to change his address on his ID and bills.
But after Biederman said goodbye and walked away, the black neighbour came back to find him, and shook his hand vigorously. “Thank you for all you’re doing here,” he told him. He just hadn’t wanted to make any trouble with his neighbours.
And that’s what I was doing on my civil war school trip all those years ago, I suppose. Not making any trouble with my neighbours. At the time, it seemed like the only thing to do.
This is an edited extract from “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth and Power” by Deirdre Mask. It is published by Profile and available in hardback and eBook.