Forrest family wants to move bust from State Museum

By: - March 16, 2022 6:30 am
A bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed from the Tennessee Capitol in 2021 after years of wrangling with lawmakers and the Tennessee Historic Commission. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed from the Tennessee Capitol in 2021 after years of wrangling with lawmakers and the Tennessee Historical Commission. Now, a Nashville suburb is suing the commission. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The battle over the bust continues.

It’s led, in part, by Collierville resident Lee Miller, who claims family kinship to Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. He exhibits a hero worship for Forrest so deep he says the Confederate leader’s funeral drew more people than Elvis’ last rites.

“Gen. Forrest was so well-respected that everybody came to the funeral, including the Black citizens of Memphis,” Miller says. Thus, he contends, Forrest’s bust and Confederate artifacts should be displayed “appropriately today so people can learn from Gen. Forrest.”

Black lawmakers fought for years to move the bust out of the museum, pointing toward Forrest’s tainted legacy as a slave trader, leader of the Fort Pillow massacre and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Forrest supporters, in contrast, say he disbanded the Klan because he was upset with its direction. They also note he spoke to the forerunner of the NAACP before his death in 1877, an incident that led to criticism by his peers.

Lee Miller of Collierville, who claims kinship to Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, is among a group arguing the bust of Forrest needs to be given up by the Tennessee State Museum and moved to a Maury County site where Forrest’s remains lie.  

Less than a year after Forrest’s bust was moved from the State Capitol to the Tennessee State Museum, Miller is among those requesting that the Forrest family and Sons of Confederate Veterans be allowed to take control of the bust and move it to a Maury County site where the remains of Forrest and his wife were placed after relocation from Memphis.

State Sen. Janice Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican, is sponsoring three pieces of legislation that are to be combined and amended in an effort to relocate the bust from the State Museum.

Bowling postponed consideration until next week but still ran into opposition from the Tennessee State Museum.

“There’s a lot of passion about this topic,” Ashley Howell, executive director of the State Museum, told the Senate State and Local Government Committee Tuesday.

But after accepting the bust a few months ago from the State Capitol, the State Museum isn’t ready to let it go.

Howell argued Tuesday the legislation proposed by Bowling “circumvents” the museum’s process for receiving and removing artifacts, setting a “precedent” by transferring items to a private organization that could lead to further removal of items from the new facility, now called the Bill Haslam Center. 

The museum leader pointed out removal of the bust involved decisions by the Capitol Commission, Tennessee Historical Commission and State Building Commission, based on the request for a waiver of the Heritage Protection Act by Gov. Bill Lee. 

The Capitol Commission turned down a request by former Gov. Bill Haslam to move the bust but changed its tune after Lee appointed different members to the group.

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 controversial bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest its former spot in the Tennessee Capitol between the chambers of the House of Representatives and Senate. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The process for relocating the Forrest bust was “well publicized” and took several years, yet nobody in the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the Forrest family contested the waiver, Howell said. 

Furthermore, she added, the bust was a gift to the State Museum and no conditions were placed on it.

“Review the processes that are in place and further consider the legal precedent this legislation would set,” Howell said.

Sons of Confederate Veterans attorney H. Edward Phillips disagrees, contending relocating the bust “breached” a 1973 agreement with the Legislature requiring it to be displayed on the second floor of the Capitol, under legislation passed by the late Sen. Douglas Henry. He says the Heritage Protection Act also needs “teeth” in order to stop further removal of historical monuments.

The remains of Forrest and his wife, which were buried at the former Health Sciences Park near downtown Memphis, were relocated within the last year to Historic Elm Springs in Columbia, home of the National Confederate Museum owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

That move came after a decision by the Memphis City Council to sell the park to a nonprofit organization and immediately remove the equestrian statue of Forrest that stood atop the gravesite. Black Memphians had complained about the Forrest monument and burial site for years.

With the uproar and litigation of those relocations dying down, Bowling calls Elm Springs the “perfect location” for the Forrest bust. She contends the bust is “unique” in that the SCV paid for it and reached an agreement to have it sit in the first niche near a second-floor elevator at the Capitol.

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, chairman of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission, opposes the legislation.

He pointed out Tuesday the Legislature invested “significantly” in the museum to attract visitors, spending some $160 million on the building located near the Capitol Mall.

“To remove any of those artifacts, be it a bust or any other artifact for the purposes and benefits of a private organization flies in the face of the entire reason this body chose to build this new State Museum,” Watson said.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.