The controversial bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest perches in the Tennessee Capitol’s second floor, between the chambers of the House of Representatives and Senate. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The Tennessee Historical Commission could decide in mid-February whether to move busts of Nathan Bedford Forrest and two Union admirals from the Capitol to the State Museum, but the outcome remains uncertain because of a pending dispute over state law.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton stand by an October letter contending the matter should go first to the State Building Commission – on which they serve – before the Tennessee Historical Commission takes it up. Their position hasn’t changed after they said the matter is wrongly before the Historical Commission based on the process set up in the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.
But the Historical Commission is scheduled to move forward Feb. 18-19 with the request made by the Capitol Commission, which voted last fall to seek permission to move the busts of Confederate Lt. Gen. Forrest and Union Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves to the State Museum from the Capitol’s second floor.
“We believe the Tennessee Historical Commission cannot properly hold an initial hearing on the petition for waiver until the required statutory action is taken by the State Building Commission,” the letter from McNally and Sexton said.
That letter came before the Historical Commission held an initial meeting on the question in October. Sexton said Wednesday he signed on to the letter after McNally drafted it.
“I think what we said is we laid out what we thought the process was, and I think they disagreed,” Sexton said, referring to the Historical Commission. “That process should be followed.”
Sexton declined to speculate about what might happen if the Historical Commission approves a waiver to move the busts.
The October letter says McNally and Sexton would be requesting the State Building Commission place the item on its next available agenda to ensure the Historical Commission would be able to follow the law. The State Building Commission has not considered the matter yet.
The Governor’s Office did not have anything to say about the waiver request Wednesday.
Historical Commission meetings are set for Feb. 18 and 19 and will be held by virtual WebEx. Participants can join by phone or video. For information, go to https://www.tn.gov/content/tn/environment/about-tdec/boards-and-commissions/board-tennessee-historical-commission.html.
From a practical standpoint, State Building Commission consideration could be just another step. The governor, who is official chairman but rarely attends, could vote to support the move, joined by Treasurer David Lillard and Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who voted on the Capitol Commission to seek the waiver. New Comptroller Jason Mumpower could follow his mentor, Justin Wilson, who called for the Capitol Commission vote to move all three busts. Those four could overcome votes by McNally and Sexton to keep the busts in the Capitol, if that’s what they decided to do.
The Legislature, which has blocked efforts to move the Forrest bust, tried to give itself a greater voice on the Capitol Commission last year by adding House and Senate clerks to the body. But it couldn’t act before the Capitol Commission took its vote.
The Forrest bust has been a point of contention since it was posted on the Capitol’s second floor, where the House and Senate meet, in 1978 at the request of the late Sen. Douglas Henry. Members of his family have since reportedly requested it be moved to the museum.
Black legislators pushed Gov. Bill Lee to seek removal of the Forrest bust because of his life as a Memphis slave trader, leader of the Fort Pillow massacre and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan following the Civil War. Lee spoke to the Capitol Commission last fall in favor of shifting the Forrest bust to the State Museum.
In a compromise of sorts, the Capitol Commission agreed to move the busts of Farragut and Gleaves, as well, for creation of a military hall of honor at the State Museum. That angered some lawmakers, including state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who said Forrest should not be considered a “hero.”
Members of the commission, including Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry, were not enthused with the entire arrangement but voted in favor of the move anyway to take Forrest out of the Capitol.
Hardaway said he is working in advance of the Historical Commission meetings in mid-February to remove the Forrest bust. He wasn’t sure whether the Historical Commission decision will be the final arbiter or whether it must go to the State Building Commission and said it’s “still open to interpretation.”
Hardaway is lobbying, though, with recent history in mind, mainly the January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol when a mob of people angry over the election of President Joe Biden stormed the building carrying Confederate flags and tried to stop Congress from adopting the Electoral College vote.
He contends the best way to move past “reckoning” toward “reconciliation” is to remove some of the “inspirational points and flashpoints” for white supremacy, which he says has a “distorted history.”
“Any time folks believe a falsehood or they’re caught up in a nightmare that’s really based upon lies, you can’t reason with them. Their tendency is toward living in that past,” Hardaway said.
Hardaway argues people can’t get out of the “Old South mentality” and continue to push the notion that Forrest was a hero despite his record. Younger people, however, aren’t tolerating the “old Jim Crow, racist, bigoted attitude,” he said, predicting the “coloring of America” will change the nation’s makeup.
State Rep. Mike Sparks, a Smyrna Republican, who spoke against removal of the Forrest bust, said Wednesday he doesn’t see much legislators can do now that the matter lies with the Historical Commission.
Sparks believes Forrest should get better treatment because he is a historical figure with a redemption story. Forrest is reported to have repented and given a talk to the forebears of the NAACP, encouraging Black residents of Memphis to excel and participate in community affairs.
“People need to know some of our history,” said Sparks.
While insisting Forrest should stay in the Capitol, Sparks often speaks about the bust of Sampson Keeble, the first Black man to serve in the Tennessee General Assembly, from 1877 to 1882.
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