Capitol Commission Votes to Move Forrest Bust

The Nathan Bedford Forrest bust currently housed in the state Capitol

After more than 40 years, the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust is likely headed out of the Tennessee State Capitol and to the state museum.

The heretofore obscure State Capitol Commission voted Thursday to request a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission, as required by the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, to move the controversial bust of the slave trader, Confederate general, early Ku Klux Klan leader and alleged war criminal from its place of prominence outside the Senate chamber. In a rather surprising move, Adms. David Farragut and Albert Gleaves will also decamp for the museum.

The 9-2 vote came after more than two hours of comment from Gov. Bill Lee, legislators and the public. Mostly, the speakers urged the bust's removal, though there was a smattering of support for its maintenance. The two no votes came from Sen. Jack Johnson and Rep. Matthew Hill, who represent their respective legislative bodies. Both Republicans said their votes were a reflection of the wills of the majority of the members of the chambers. Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who voted in 2017 to keep the bust in the Capitol, changed his vote, prompting cheers from protesters gathered outside the Tennessee Tower, whose chants and yells could occasionally be heard during the three-hour meeting.

Sen. Joey Hensley, a Columbia Republican, questioned the accuracy of reports of the Fort Pillow Massacre, in which soldiers under Forrest's command killed surrendering Union soldiers, many of whom were Black. The historicity of the massacre is not doubted by the overwhelming majority of Civil War historians. Hensley also said the number of Black legislators is an indication Tennessee is "doing pretty well" on racial issues. He also repeated the oft-noted anecdote that at least 3,000 Black people were at Forrest's funeral, though Howard Gentry noted many of them were likely Forrest's children or other relations. 

Gentry noted that his surname and that of his mother were those of not just slave owners, but men who impregnated his ancestors. To Gentry, the number of Black mourners is instead testimony to widespread rape by slave owners.

Rep. Mike Sparks also seemingly was in favor of keeping the bust in the Capitol, though much of his commentary was devoted to other matters, including student loan relief, criminal justice reform and predatory lending reform.

In large part, those speaking in favor of moving the bust were unified in their messaging, emphasizing Forrest's actions before, during and immediately after the Civil War, and the message his place of prominence sends to Tennesseans, particularly Black Tennesseans.

Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat, tearfully explained that when she comes off the elevator at the Capitol and faces Forrest, she can hear the "wails and cries" of the surrendering soldiers at Fort Pillow and the cries of enslaved people.

“Monuments reflect the values that unite us," she said. "Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest does not represent the values of Tennessee. … Nathan Bedford Forrest represents an allegiance to white supremacy. When children see Forrest’s bust, what lesson do they learn? … Children and adults alike must literally look up to Forrest on a pedestal."

Rep. Harold Love Jr., with his preacher's oratory style, compared the commission's decision to that of the legislature in 1920, when Tennessee became the deciding state on the ratification of the 19th Amendment. He said women's suffrage opponents predicted a parade of horribles in the wake of women getting the right to vote, but none of it came to pass.

“It is fair to those of us who are the descendents of enslaved people," said Love. "It’s fair for Harold Love Jr., who is a descendent of the enslaved Myra Love and Sam Love. It’s the right thing to do. It’s fair and it’s right, because if we want to move our state and our nation in the direction of racial reconciliation, let’s do what’s fair and let’s do what’s right. I promise you, the world will not end."

Rep. G.A. Hardaway said if people are looking for a monument and memorial to the Civil War, they should look at Black Tennesseans.

"Your heritage was horrific to me if your heritage embraced the Confederacy," Hardaway said. "You want a memorial, you want a monument. Look at me. We are the lasting legacy of the Civil War. We stand here as monuments of those times."

Comptroller Justin Wilson amended the motion to petition the THC to remove not just Forrest, but also the busts of Adms. David Farragut and Albert Gleaves, for commemoration in a military display at the museum, filling the empty plinths with commemorations of state and federal elected officials. Capitol Commission member Howard Gentry questioned whether such a move would delay the removal of Forrest. All three busts are already property of the museum, so it seemingly would not, though ultimately the final disposition is up to the THC.

The historical commission is scheduled to meet Friday, though it likely won't take the matter up until its October meeting. The THC meets quarterly and will have to approve the waiver at a second meeting.

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