Tennessee Historical Commission Confirms Removal of Forrest Bust from Capitol

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — A little over four decades after its installation in the Tennessee State Capitol the bronze bust of Confederate general, Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest will finally be relocated.

“It’s long overdue,” said District 19 State Sen. Brenda Gilmore of the removal vote. She spoke Tuesday morning before the Tennessee Historical Commission made their final decision on the long-embattled presence of the seditionist’s likeness.

“When we install memorials in our public spaces, which are made possible and maintained by the taxpayers black, white and brown, those monuments should reflect the values that unite us all and the moral principles that guide our families, our society and our state today,” Gilmore said.

“Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest does not represent the values of Tennessee,” she said.

The bust has been the impetus of protests since its installation in 1978. Last July, the State Capitol Commission voted 9-2 to remove the bust. That left the removal effort with one last hurdle to overcome: the state’s Historical Commission. It had, until now, voted to keep the bust in place.

The bust will probably be removed this summer and displayed in some fashion in the Tennessee State Museum. Dates are still to be determined.

“Forrest made his personal fortune by enslaving, torturing and selling Black people. A disgraceful traitor, he waged war against the United States of America to preserve white supremacy and slavery. And, when the confederacy was defeated and slavery abolished, he led campaigns to further terrorize, murder and suppress the lives and liberties of freed Black people,” Gilmore continued.

“Above all else, the legacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest represents an allegiance to white supremacy in every form. You know his history,” she said. “Even a young child understands the Capitol is a special building and that the deliberate placement of this bust is an obvious position of honor. Children and adults alike must literally look up to Forrest who is perched on a pedestal as if he should be admired without criticism.”

In 1973, then-Senator Douglas Henry, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, introduced a resolution to install a bust memorializing Forrest in the State Capitol which passed later that year. Its unveiling in November of 1978 was met with protest from the African American community, and in the early months of 1979 community leaders, including Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, held a meeting with then-Governor Lamar Alexander after the bronze bust and a portrait of Forrest were damaged and stolen, respectively. 

Though the meeting’s agenda focused on other issues concerning the Black community, it became clear the bust was causing tension in the community. That meeting took place at nearly the same time as the KKK burned two crosses in Nashville, one at the headquarters of the NAACP, The Tennessean reported. 

“The role this flawed and atrocious human played in history should be something our society continues to learn from in a place where people are challenged to examine the evils of white supremacy and its aftermath. “I am not suggesting that we erase history,” Gilmore said, noting the move to the Tennessee State Museum would place Forrest in context with the American story.

“Slavery, oppression and bigotry are a part of our American history, but we do not and should not celebrate these ideals today nor should we glorify them with distinctions of honor in our public places. Our state and our nation have an immense amount of work to do to achieve true racial equality and justice. And while public monuments only play a small role in this work, removing the Forrest bust from the Capitol will correct one mistake made in 1978,” Gilmore concluded.