NASHVILLE, Tennessee – At a meeting of the State Capitol Commission (SCC) held Friday, the first order of new business on the agenda was to address Governor Haslam’s request to relocate the Nathan Bedford Forrest Statue from the Capitol. The motion failed by a vote of 7 to 5, with all twelve members voting.
Tennessee Code Annotated 4-8-301 established in 1986 that the SCC membership would consist of seven ex-officio members, two legislative members appointed by the speaker of each body, and three private citizens. The members and their respective votes are as follows:
Larry Martin, SCC Chair / Commissioner, Finance & Administration – Yes
Bob Oglesby, Commissioner, General Services – Yes
Bob Martineau, Commissioner, Environment & Conservation – Yes
Tre Hargett, Secretary of State – No
David Lillard, State Treasurer – No
Justin Wilson, Comptroller of the Treasury – No
Reavis Mitchell, Chair, TN Historical Commission – Yes
State Senator Jack Johnson – No
State Representative Curtis Johnson – No
Howard Gentry, Jr., Private Citizen – Yes
Tammy White, Private Citizen – No
King Rogers, Private Citizen – No
The SCC meets on an as-needed basis, with just one other meeting in 2017 during the month of May, two meetings in 2016, three meetings in 2015, two meetings in 2014 and one meeting in each of 2013, 2012 and 2011.
After a lengthy introductory explanation, the motion was made by Chairman Larry Martin and seconded by Bob Martineau, which then opened the issue for discussion amongst the entire Commission.
In his introduction, Martin cited State of Tennessee Public Chapter 601, known as the “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2016” (Act). Martin made the case that the Act enabled the SCC to submit a petition of waiver to the Tennessee Historical Commission showing “that there is a material or substantial need for a waiver based on historical or other compelling public interest.”
Martin said that with the Governor’s formal and written request, he would be making the motion to pursue the waiver and to establish a subcommittee consisting of himself, Howard Gentry, Jr. and Bob Martineau, who would serve as the subcommittee chair. The subcommittee would prepare the petition of waiver to relocate the statue and the required reports for submission directly to the Tennessee Historical Commission, without further review or approval by the full body of the SCC.
Martin seemed to send mixed messages in his introduction when he quoted several paragraphs from Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, that started, “When a nation tears down its statues, it’s toppling more than brass and marble,” then answered his own question of “why now,” by stating that the “significant civil unrest since Charlottesville, Virginia should not be ignored.” Martin said Nathan Bedford Forrest was a complex man, listed some of his offenses, then continued that later in life, Forrest reached out to the black community. Martin also said that consideration should be given to the culture and social context of the time.
Comptroller Justin Wilson was the first to speak after the motion was made and seconded, referencing the General Assembly’s 1973 passage of SJR 54, sponsored by the widely respected and beloved Douglas Henry, by 87 votes in the House and unanimously in the Senate to have the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue where it is now. Wilson said he didn’t think that Martin’s motion was appropriate, and that the General Assembly should deal with issues of the second floor of the Capitol.
Treasurer David Lillard said it was a matter of great importance to have a thoughtful and consistent plan to rotate all items in the Capitol, and will distribute such a suggestion to the SCC for consideration.
State Representative Curtis Johnson expressed concern that month after month further requests could be brought to the SCC, saying that this is a “slippery slope,” and asked, “Where does this stop?”
Former legislator and an appointee of the legislature, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, said he tended to agree with the Comptroller that the SCC is a body made up of mostly unelected officials. He also said that he doesn’t think a lot about Nathan Bedford Forrest, but instead thinks of where the state is headed and the good things being done together.
Private citizen member of the SCC, former Nashville mayoral candidate and current Davidson County Criminal Court clerk, Howard Gentry, Jr. made impassioned comments stating that it would be nice if they didn’t have to think about it, but he remembers when the Capitol used to have “colored” bathrooms and there were legislative sessions that didn’t have a call to take them down.
At age 65, Gentry Jr. said that still bothers him, and that both parents of his father, who was born in 1921, were born into slavery, which would make Howard Jr.’s grandfather at least 56 years old when his father Howard Gentry, Sr. was born. Gentry Jr. and Gentry Sr. have impressive resumes and longstanding ties to Tennessee State University.
In response to some of the SCC member comments on Martin’s motion, Gentry seemed to be under the impression that the “path had been cleared,” that there was a “level of comfort and security that we have the power to be doing what we’re doing,” and said that he was “here to act,” adding “I don’t feel like punting today.”
Before the vote, Hargett asked for confirmation on what the SCC would be voting on. Chairman Martin re-read the two-part motion that the petition to the Historic Commission for relocation of the Nathan Bedford Forrest statute would be prepared and that a three-person subcommittee would be formed to take that action.
Martin said that subcommittee chair Martineau would “furnish copies” before the petition was made public and that it would have to be put on the website and be noticed in at least one newspaper in Davidson County.
Before the vote, Hargett and Johnson both expressed concern that if the motion passed, the SCC would be relinquishing their authority with neither the petition nor the public comments coming back to the SCC for further consideration or recourse.
While some may lay blame with the Constitutional officers selected by the legislature, Secretary of State Hargett, Treasurer Lillard and Comptroller Wilson for their no vote, tipping the scales against the motion were two of the citizen members appointed by the Governor who also remained unconvinced and voted no.
While it is not known what the Historical Commission would do with the waiver petition once received, the Act enabling the waiver petition concludes, “This act is remedial in nature and shall be liberally construed in favor of historical preservation.”
It is likely that legislators who support the Governor’s request will sponsor a bill to relocate or remove the statue once the legislative session begins on January 9, 2018.