Lawsuit tossed into Forrest bust issue for Tennessee Historical Commission

Special Reports

Monuments and Middle Ground

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Tennessee Historical Commission is familiar to those following the fate of statues or the Capitol Hill bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, but the group’s biggest decision is still ahead.

By state law, the commission gives final approval to changes for capitol artifacts like the Confederate general’s likeness that sits between the House and Senate chambers on the capitol’s second floor.  
But that is just one of the duties for the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Markers like the one designating the site where slaves were traded in Nashville are among the many programs conducted by the commission. Its website says the program that “began in the late 1940s, has erected almost 2000 markers commemorating sites, persons, and events significant in Tennessee history.”

The site lists a variety of other programs and places that affect Tennesseans, but its the long debate over Confederate monuments that has brought more attention to the commission.

Over the years protesters and many Democrat lawmakers have long targeted the capitol’s Forrest bust.

Revered as a tactician during the Civil War, Forrest was a slave trader before the conflict. Removing or relocating it needs final approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission in a law sponsored by former state lawmaker and former House Republican leader Steve McDaniel originally back in 2013.

He always acknowledged Forrest’s controversial life. “His military genius is what people commemorate. The dark side of his life that we experienced is not what we are commemorating here,” said then-Representative McDaniel in an interview with News 2 in 2017.

There remains the question when the Forrest bust removal might come before the state historical commission.

On August 17, a lawyer for the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed suit against the Tennessee Capitol Commission and the State of Tennessee. The group’s attorney Doug Jones said the first step taken by the state’s Capitol Commission in July to remove the bust should be declared “null and void.”

“The Capitol Commission did not have jurisdiction,” said Jones.

He argues that because Tennessee lawmakers put the bust in the capitol in 1978, only they can put it somewhere else.

“I have had these heritage protection cases for many, many years and number one, slavery was terrible,” Jones said in an interview with News 2. “It was terrible, but we don’t need to erase our history and that is what they are attempting to do here.”

One of those cases before the historical commission was when it denied a request by Memphis to remove Forrest’s statue from a city park. The statue was eventually removed suddenly one night when Memphis sold the park to a private group.

No such scenario is expected before the historical commission when it hears about removing the Forrest bust from Tennessee’s Capitol — whenever that might be.

Forrest has also been linked to the Ku Klux Klan and the killing of black troops trying to surrender at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, but historians differ on both accounts.

Recent social unrest has renewed debate over Confederate monuments and if they represent history versus hate. News 2 digs deeper into how Tennessee is coping with its Confederate past, present, and future. Read more on Monuments & Middle Ground here.

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