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NASHVILLE — A bronze bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed from the Tennessee Capitol building on Friday.

Nearly 43 years after the likeness of the Ku Klux Klan's first grand wizard was installed on the building's second floor, a moving crew on Friday strapped Forrest's estimated 2,000-pound, 44-inch bronze effigy and hoisted it by chains onto a flexible moving platform.

It then rode down an elevator at the Capitol, was placed in a truck and was driven to its new home in the nearby Tennessee State Museum amid cheers from Black Tennesseans who had protested the bust's presence in the Capitol since its arrival on Nov. 5, 1978.

The purpose of the removal was to provide fuller context to Forrest, a controversial Tennessean and self-taught military genius who bedeviled federal troops and is reviled by critics for his becoming a millionaire selling enslaved Black Americans. He oversaw a military massacre of Union troops, many of them Black, that occurred under his command at Fort Pillow in West Tennessee. And then there's his early KKK involvement before attempting to disband the increasingly violent group.

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Nathan Bedford Forrest removed

As part of Republican Gov. Bill Lee's recommendations, given final approval by the State Building Commission on a 5-2 vote Thursday, two other state Capitol busts were also removed. One was a stone sculpture of Union Admiral David Farragut, and the other a metal bust of U.S Admiral Albert Gleaves. They were also transported to the museum.

Among those watching the removal process Friday was state Rep. Harold Love Jr., a Black Democrat from Nashville who saw Forrest's enshrinement in an alcove outside the Senate and House chambers as hateful.

"I had an ancestor who was enslaved," Love said. "I'm glad that bust is out of there."

Love said he and other Black lawmakers no longer have to look at the Forrest bust as they come off the Capitol's elevators.

Nor, Love said, will "children who come into the state Capitol, who want to come there to be honored for their accomplishments in high school, elementary and middle school, children who come there to tour the Capitol, don't now have to face looking at a man who owned human beings."

Visitors from other states who come in to see the Capitol won't see his visage either, Love added.

In its new location at the state museum, the bust will provide historical context to Forrest's personal story.

During the State Building Commission vote on Thursday, the two no votes came from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

There was no discussion at the meeting, but both of the lawmakers were later critical of the removal. McNally said his view is proper historical context could and should have been provided inside the Capitol.

The bust's removal was approved by the State Capitol Commission last year and earlier this year by the Tennessee Historical Commission — which had previously served as a roadblock to the removal, until Lee appointed a raft of new members to the panel.

Sexton issued a statement later on Thursday saying lawmakers will review procedures and could make changes to law to make it clear the speakers are in charge of the Capitol's second floor.

 

What now

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said "it's been a long time coming, but in my view it was the right thing to do to remove that bust. It could be that sign or symbol that says we're going to try to find ways of working together as opposed to having those things that divide us in such a way that that bust did."

As to who lawmakers might choose to replace Forrest's bust, Hakeem said, "The first thing that comes to mind is a person like Ida B. Wells."

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who was born into slavery and lived until 1931, was a Tennessee investigative journalist, educator and early leader in the civil rights movement and among founders of the NAACP. She exposed the lynchings of Black men throughout the South.

Love suggested the late House Speaker Pro Tem Lois Deberry, a Black Democratic legislator and political trailblazer who represented portions of Memphis. DeBerry's name has been floated in GOP legislative circles.

Or, Love said, maybe a memorial to the enslaved Black Tennesseans who built the state Capitol.

Ashley Howell, the Tennessee State Museum's executive director, said that "museums preserve historical objects to provide connections to the past and offer public spaces for reflection."

Howell said the museum has set aside space for the busts of Forrest, Farragut and Gleaves in temporary gallery space just off the museum's permanent collection.

"We have Forrest interpreted," Howell said, which includes information about his pre-Civil War life and notes his career as a slave trader, as well as his actions during the Civil War, including the Fort Pillow massacre. The museum will also include context surrounding Forrest's post-war life during Reconstruction and his early Ku Klux Klan involvement.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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