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Tennessee state panel agrees to remove Confederate bust, if two Union busts go with it

Statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in Forrest Park, Memphis, Tenn. (Thomas R Machnitzki/Wikimedia Commons)

In a last-minute compromise, Tennessee’s State Capitol Commission on Thursday recommended moving the bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state Capitol to the state museum, but only if the busts of two Union admirals are moved, too.

The idea of adding Union Admirals Albert Gleaves and David Farragut to the proposal came from Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson, an appointee of Republican legislators. The request now goes to the Tennessee Historical Commission, which would also have to approve the relocations.

The vote was 9-2, with Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesboro, voting no.

Some members who had supported removal of the Forrest bust reluctantly agreed to make it a package deal.

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“I just hope and pray that voting for the amendment is not going to in any way impede or deter what my intent was today” to remove the Forrest bust from the Capitol, said Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry.

Gentry, who is Black, earlier described his experience as a child coming into the Tennessee Capitol, which at the time still had segregated restrooms and water fountains.

Approval of the compromise came following nearly OVERSET FOLLOWS:three hours of often emotional testimony from both sides of the issue and then commission debate over Forrest, whose military tactics remain studied and admired by some but whose pre-Civil War life as a slave trader and post-war position as an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan has long been an issue.

The bust was placed in the Capitol in 1978. Located between the House and Senate chambers on the second floor, it has for years been a flash point for protests, which have been galvanized following renewed concerns over racism and treatment of Blacks following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee commended the panel for its vote, saying, “I commend members of the State Capitol Commission for taking up the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust issue and arriving at a thoughtful resolution that provides important historical context for the bust at the State Museum. Scripture implores us to live in peaceful unity, and I believe today’s actions reflect this and our commitment to remembering all parts of our past.”

State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, told the commission of Forrest’s career in command of Confederate troops during the infamous massacre of Black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in West Tennessee during the Civil War.

“On behalf of all the Black citizens who make Tennessee home, please vote in favor of removing the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Memorials reflect the values that unite us,” state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, told the commission.

State Sen. Joey Hensley, a white Republican from Hohenwald, spoke against removal of the bust, noting three of his great grandfathers had fought for the Confederacy “because the people of Tennessee and the legislature voted to leave the Union. These men, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, sought to defend their homeland.”

Hensley said Forrest is “honored in that place in the Capitol because he was a great general.” He noted news accounts that large numbers of Black residents in Memphis turned out for Forrest’s funeral.

Doug Jones, an attorney who represents the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told commissioners via video link, “Let me be clear, Tennesseans oppose erasing American history. You’re about to erase part of our history. Call it whatever you want, it’s an erasure of American history, and I would assert to you that millions of Tennesseans are against it.

But Dr. Learotha Williams Jr., a history professor at Tennessee State University, said it was clear that Forrest “led a terrorist organization” in the Ku Klux Klan.

“Public monuments represent what people who put them up wanted to convey,” Williams said. “This bust was dedicated more than 100 years after Forrest died. What will you be saying to history if you keep it in the Capitol?”

The Forrest bust was placed in the Capitol in 1978 in an effort led by then-Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville. That was based on a 1973 legislative resolution, Comptroller Wilson noted.

Wilson said the clear intent from the resolution was to honor Forrest’s military role.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, chair of the Black Caucus of State Legislators, said the group was concerned about the addition of the two Union busts into the proposed relocation, but nevertheless said the vote was encouraging and historic.

He called the vote “an example of the racial reckoning that both Tennessee and the nation is currently dealing withand hopefully the Historical Commission will allow us to take one more step toward the racial reconciliation that has to happen for all of us to truly heal.”

Both Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate Republican speaker from Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, as well as many legislative Republicans have opposed removal of the bust, saying Forrest is a part of Tennessee history.

McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said the lieutenant governor “has clearly and consistently shared his personal position that the bust needs context but should remain where it is. He has been equally clear and consistent in recognizing there are laws and a process for this outlined in our code. The process starts with the Capitol Commission. That process has begun.”

Sexton said in a statement that he respects Lee’s “opinion” but noted Thursday’s action “is just the first of many steps.” He also warned that “what we are seeing across our nation and in our state is no longer about one historical figure, monument, or statue. It’s about erasing history.”

In getting the Forrest bust issue before the Capitol Commission, Lee delayed signing a bill supported by McNally and Sexton that gave the House and Senate two additional slots on the 12-member.

Even if the Tennessee Historical Commission agrees to the Capitol Commission’s actions, removal could become further complicated by a 2010 law. It states it is the “duty” of the state General Services Department commissioner “acting with approval of the House of Representatives, to take care of and preserve the second floor of the of the state Capitol.”

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© 2020 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press