Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, is frustrated by the lack of action in moving a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)
An order by the Tennessee Historical Commission to relocate the busts of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and two U.S. admirals to the State Museum from the State Capitol is set to take effect Friday.
But the Tennessee State Museum still has no plan or time frame to put together a new exhibit with the busts. And Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton remain opposed to moving them out of the Capitol’s second floor, which the Legislature controls.
The seeming stalemate is not lost on Sen. Brenda Gilmore, who has spoken passionately about the need to oust the Forrest bust from its perch near a second-floor elevator. She fears another setback after years of work to move the Forrest monument.
Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat, has been on the front lines of civil rights efforts for more than five decades. She grew up in Gallatin and was one of two Black students who transferred to all-white Gallatin High School from Union High a year before it closed in 1970 and the rest of the city’s Black students joined them.
With state leaders such as Gov. Bill Lee finally supporting them, Gilmore and other Black lawmakers began to see momentum in their efforts to move the Forrest bust and end what they see as centuries of white supremacy in state government. But as soon as their hopes begin to rise, they could just as easily hit roadblocks.
Gilmore points out the State Capitol Commission and Tennessee Historical Commission “overwhelmingly” voted to relocate the busts, mainly the Forrest monument, which has been a point of contention since it went up in 1978 with Ku Klux Klan members as well as protesters attending the installment event.
“I believe the overall sentiment among Tennesseans is to move it out of the State Capitol. We’re not saying to destroy it, we’re just saying move it out of the State Capitol. Forrest does not deserve a prominent place in the State Capitol,” Gilmore says.
Forrest might have sought forgiveness, she says, after a life as a slave trader, plantation owner, Confederate cavalry leader, and KKK grand wizard. But that doesn’t erase the hurt and trauma he caused for Black Americans, including those killed in the Fort Pillow Massacre, Gilmore says.
A former House member who also served on the Metro Nashville City Council, Gilmore is “disappointed” the two speakers continue to oppose removal of the Forrest bust.
“My hope was they would be more sensitive to how, as a Black legislator, you feel every time you get off that elevator and look at that Forrest bust, knowing how he tortured Black soldiers and even during the time he was in the Ku Klux Klan, Black families’ homes were burned. … I continue to be hurt by it,” she says.
McNally has said he believes the bust should remain in its place with context added about the life of Forrest. Sexton has been adamant that state law should be followed, and other Republican House members have said they are concerned about “erasing history” if the bust is relocated.
But Gov. Lee called for the bust’s removal in 2020 and testified before the Capitol Commission, which switched its vote and agreed to seek a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission after turning down a similar request by former Gov. Bill Haslam some four years ago.
Shortly before the Historical Commission took up the matter, McNally and Sexton said state law required the question to be considered by the State Building Commission, upon which they both sit, before it could go further. Dispute also exists over whether statute gives authority to the Legislature instead of the Capitol Commission.
The Historical Commission, however, opted to consider the waiver request and in March voted 25-1 to move the Forrest bust along with busts of U.S. Admirals David Farragut and Albert Gleaves for the creation of a Hall of Heroes.
The Tennessee State Museum, though, is in a “holding pattern” on the busts as it awaits direction, spokesman Joe Pagetta said this week. Museum officials have discussed the matter but don’t have an exhibit plan or time frame for even removing the heavy busts from the State Capitol.
“I assume there’ll be some movement, but we have not been told to come get it,” Pagetta said of the busts.
The museum could get more direction Friday once the Historical Commission’s order takes effect, 120 days from its vote. But they’re really wondering what will happen next.
Uncertainty seems to be the rule. In fact, the busts might not even go into the new museum.
State Museum Executive Director Ashley Howell told the Historical Commission in March the busts probably need to be placed in the Tennessee War Memorial military branch museum, which has had some problems with humidity conditions and is slated for renovation.
During the Historical Commission hearing, Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley, who chairs the Capitol Commission, reiterated his support and that of Lee for the bust’s relocation, saying it is a “stark reminder of the pain it has caused for African Americans.”
Since then, however, the Lee Administration has provided few details about any efforts to move the busts.
In response to questions, Department spokeswoman Lola Potter recently pointed out the Historical Commission’s order doesn’t take effect until Friday.
“We are working to determine next steps, and our plans have not changed,” she said in an email.
Lee spokeswoman Casey Black issued a similar statement his week, saying the earliest anything could happen would be Friday. The Governor’s Office is deciding what to do next and would provide updates, Black said.
“Our plans have not changed,” she added.
Even the legal advice surrounding the issue is sketchy.
In an opinion prepared at the request of McNally and Sexton in May, Attorney General Herbert Slatery determined the Capitol Commission had authority to request a waiver to move the busts. But it also gave some credence to the views held by the two speakers.
“While there are public entities that arguably also exercise control over the three memorials, the State Capitol Commission is a public entity exercising control over the memorials within the meaning of the Heritage Protection Act and so appears to be an appropriate petitioner under the Act,” Slatery’s opinion states.
Yet when asked if the Capitol Commission had the authority to seek a waiver without concurrence of the State Building Commission, Slatery found state law would require the Building Commission to approve the move.
Ultimately, Slatery’s opinion left the question unanswered, because he also said the matter could be viewed as an action taken under Heritage Protection Act, which doesn’t require State Building Commission action.
“The Tennessee Historical Commission implicitly found the latter when it granted the State Capitol Commission’s petition for waiver without requiring it to show concurrence of the State Building Commission,” the opinion states.
That opinion and the lingering opposition from McNally and Sexton leaves lawmakers such as Gilmore in limbo. She isn’t even certain Gov. Lee has the authority to move the busts out of the State Capitol on his own volition.
“I think we need to ask the speakers would they be willing to abide by the decisions of the (Capitol) commissioners and also the Tennessee Historical Commission. I mean they overwhelmingly said it should be moved. It wasn’t like it was a split decision,” Gilmore says. “So I think Speaker McNally and Speaker Sexton should honor those decisions.”
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