A Senate committee gave credence Wednesday to legislation vacating the Tennessee Historical Commission over its vote to relocate the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust, despite opposition from Gov. Bill Lee.
In a 5-4 vote, the Senate Government Operations Committee gave a positive recommendation to Senate Bill 600 from Sen. Joey Hensley to remove 29 Historical Commission members appointed by the governor and replace them in July with 12 members, four each appointed by the governor and House and Senate speakers, representing the state’s three grand divisions and one at-large member. The measure goes next to the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
Hensley, a Hohenwald Republican who opposes moving the Forrest bust from the State Capitol to the State Museum, did not introduce an amendment that would impeach any public official who moves or damages a historical bust. Rep. John Ragan had taken the House version of the bill off notice, which usually means the bill is dead, but filed the amendment to stop the Forrest bust from being moved from the Capitol’s second floor. Hensley said the House amendment is still being “finalized.”
The Tennessee Historical Commission voted 25-1 last week to relocate the bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. Forrest, a slave trader and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as monuments of Union Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves.
Eric Mayor, legislative liaison for Gov. Lee, told senators the governor opposes the bill because it would remove 29 “excellent” members and eliminate qualifications for serving on the commission such as inclusion of African Americans and Native Americans as well as those with interests in history and “institutional knowledge.”
Cutting the commission by more than half “is very concerning to the governor,” Mayo said.
A number of lawmakers, however, want a stronger voice in keeping the busts in place.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton have said they believe the Legislature has control over the second floor of the Capitol, and they aren’t ready to go along with the Historical Commission’s decision. They’ve sought an opinion from Attorney General Herbert Slatery on the legal process for the busts’ removal, contending the matter should have gone to the State Building Commission – before the Historical Commission – after the State Capitol Commission voted last year to seek a waiver to relocate the busts for a military “hall of heroes” in the State Museum.
State Sen. Janice Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican, backed the legislation Wednesday, saying the nation is looking at a “desire to cancel history” and “cancel culture” by removing and relocating historical statues.
“I think that’s a dangerous precedent,” Bowling said, contending the Legislature should be able to place its own appointments on the Historical Commission.
Sen. Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican, countered that the Legislature adopted an “arduous” Heritage Protection Act in 2013 and updated it twice in subsequent years.
“I think we already have a process that is tough, and I believe it should be tough to get a monument moved,” Bell said.
He argued that the Legislature would wind up changing the Heritage Protection Act or the process related to monuments by changing the rules every time it disagrees with a decision. If lawmakers want to change the act, they should just take it into their own hands, Bell said.
Hensley, though, said the commission should not be appointed completely by the governor, who filled several positions on the board in the last few months prior to the Forrest bust vote.
“We should have equal say,” Hensley said.
He pointed out the Legislature passed legislation to put two people on the Capitol Commission but those appointments haven’t been made.
In addition to vacating and reconstituting the Historical Commission, the legislation would enable a new commission to appoint a director to replace Historical Commission Executive Director Patrick McIntyre.
Hensley claimed McIntyre cast aspersions on Confederate “boy hero” Sam Davis of Smyrna, who has a statue on Capitol grounds, by saying Confederate supporters perpetuated a “lost cause” narrative that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights rather than slavery and that Sam Davis chose to martyr himself for the Confederacy.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. He was just trying to protect a friend,” Hensley said. Davis, a member of the Coleman Scouts, was hanged in Pulaski by Union troops after being captured and refusing to divulge where he received sensitive information about Union soldier movements.
Asked about McIntyre’s stance on Davis, Susan McClamroch, historic preservation specialist for the Tennessee Historical Commission said McIntyre has “a great interest in and respect” for the Sam Davis story.
“In the past three years the Tennessee Historical Commission has increased its grant funding to both the Sam Davis Home in Smyrna and to the Sam Davis Shrine in Pulaski, which is a Tennessee Historical Commission site,” McClamroch said in a statement.