NASHVILLE– The State Capitol Commission, while hearing testimony from both sides on the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust during a meeting on Thursday took no action on the matter.
The Nathan Bedford Forrest bust was placed in a vacant niche in the State Capitol in 1978, the result of a 1973 joint resolution SJR 54 sponsored by Democrat Senator Douglas Henry. The measure passed unanimously in the Senate and with an 87-0 vote in the House.
Senator Henry’s resolution said that General Nathan Bedford Forrest was Tennessee’s greatest military hero on the Confederate side in the War between the States, but no bust of him is on display in the Capitol. This, despite a bust of Tennessee’s greatest military hero on the federal side, Admiral Farragut, occupying a niche on the second floor of the Capitol.
The resolution indicated that Sons of Confederate Veterans Joseph E. Johnston Camp No. 28, of which Senator Henry was a member, evidenced a desire to procure an appropriate bust of General Forrest for display in the niche.
At least one previous time, the SCC took up the potential removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust during the September 20, 2017, meeting. At the time, Commissioner Larry Martin proposed that a three-member subcommittee be formed to draft the petition for waiver to the Tennessee Historical Commission for the bust to be relocated from the Capitol to the Tennessee State Museum. The motion failed with a vote of 5 for and 7 against the proposal.
Of the current twelve-member State Capitol Commission (SCC), one member was absent during Thursday’s meeting and another position was recently vacated.
SCC Chairman Stuart McWhorter, who is also the state’s Commissioner of Finance and Administration appointed by Governor Bill Lee, announced that with the vacancy no votes would be taken out of fairness to such an important topic and issue.
The vacancy was the result of Tyreece L. Miller, a Governor-Lee appointee to the SCC in September 2019, being tapped by the Trump Administration to serve as U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Tennessee, announced just over a week prior to the SCC meeting.
Chairman McWhorter announced to the attendees, in an almost-filled House Hearing Room II in the legislature’s Cordell Hull Building, that several people had signed up to speak and would be limited to three minutes each. Speakers representing more than one individual could combine their time.
Legislators wishing to speak on the topic would not be asked to limit their time.
Those who supported rotation of the bust spoke first, followed by those in favor of keeping the bust.
Supporting the rotation or removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the Capitol were Vietnam War veteran Jim Wohlgemuth with Veterans for Peace International; Pastor Kevin Riggs, Franklin Community Church; and, Senior Pastor of Strong Tower Bible Church Chris Williamson.
Speaking in favor of keeping the Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Capitol were H. Edward Phillips, an attorney who has represented the Forrest family in the removal of the statutes in Memphis, although he spoke as a Tennessean; Mark Jackson; historian, professor and author Dr. Michael Bradley who previously testified about Nathan Bedford Forrest during a meeting of the House Naming, Designating and Private Acts Committee, as The Tennessee Star reported; Nashville native and Camp Commander of the Joseph E. Johnston Camp #28 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans since 2006, Paul White; Gene Andrews was asked to speak as a Vietnam War combat veteran on the “out and out lie” of the massacre at Fort Pillow, which made Nathan Bedford Forrest a scapegoat to boost recruiting in the north; and, Doug Jones, attorney representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, with a history of heritage protection on both sides of the aisle, including the 2003 creation of The Friends of Fort Negley.
Representative Harold Love, Jr. (D-Nashville) gave passionate and compelling testimony of how his ancestor, Samuel, was the son of Myra Woods not from her marriage, but from her slave owner Mr. Love. In talking about slavery, oftentimes we don’t have a modern day face, said Representative Love, “But here stands before you the face of a descendant, not just random in name, but by facts in the census.”
As a State Representative, Love said he has to work every day in a building where he sees a slave owner as he gets off the elevator to vote on bills that affect every Tennessean, he said as he turned almost completely around to speak to those seated in the room.
Representative Love said he wasn’t addressing Forrest’s history as a military leader, but as a slave owner and asked when talking about the effects of history, that his experience not be discounted, “I’m not discounting yours,” he added, turning to the previous speakers.
His father, Representative Harold Love, Sr., he said voted in 1973 for the bust, but also had to deal with getting money for his university and district. Love, Jr. said of his father’s vote, “On the last day of session,” perhaps alluding to last year’s controversial House floor votes on Education Savings Accounts and TennCare block grant, “we don’t know what was said to him about his vote for this bust that was needed to make sure that his school – Tennessee State, Fisk, Meharry College – got their money that year,” even though the legislature was under Democrat control at the time.
Representative Love believes the appropriate place for the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust is in the Tennessee State Museum.
Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) had three ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, two privates and a lieutenant, one who died in the war and one who was a prisoner of war.
When Senator Hensley sees the bust, he thinks about Forrest representing the hundreds of thousands of soldiers that fought in the war, Confederate and Union. He said their counterparts voted in the 1860s to leave the Union, “and we were invaded,” said Senator Hensley.
Most, and certainly his ancestors, did not own slaves and didn’t want to fight, but fought for the Confederacy to protect their homeland and their families.
Senator Hensley said leaving the bust in the Capitol is not so much for Forrest, but for the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who are not listed and for the reminder of history.
Representative “Doc” Kumar (R-Springfield), has proposed HJR 0813, an effort he hopes will be uniting by telling a full story and creating a museum experience from the Civil War to Civil Rights.
After nearly an hour of testimony, Chairman McWhorter expressed appreciation for the respect shown to each other, especially in light of the passion on both sides of the issue.
Regarding the next meeting of the SCC, Chairman McWhorter said he couldn’t give a date pending Governor Bill Lee’s replacement for the vacancy.
The video of the February 20, 2020, meeting of the State Capitol Commission including the full testimony of the speakers can be viewed here.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.