Republican state senators in Tennessee have introduced legislation that, if passed, would completely gut the state’s 29-member Tennessee Historical Commission (THC), which doubles as the State Historic Preservation Office for the Volunteer State.
Senate Bill 600 comes on the heels of a March 8 vote by the commission to remove a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a prominent but problematic figure in the state’s history, from the state capitol building. The THC’s 25-to-1 vote to remove the bust follows a July 2020 vote by the State Capitol Commission that similarly favored doing away with the likeness of Forrest. Under the current plan, the bust would be relocated from the State Capitol to the State History Museum, a move supported by Republican Governor Bill Lee, who is also against the push by a group of Republican state senators to vacate the THC.
If passed, the bill, introduced by Senator Joey Hensley, would not only empty out the current commission but also shrink it from 29 members to 12. Currently, the THC is composed of 25 governor-appointed members from across the state, joined by five ex officio members: the Governor, the State Historian, the State Archaeologist, the Commissioner of Environment and Conservation, and the State Librarian and Archivist. Per Senate Bill 600, the 12 new members would be selected—four each—by the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House.
The bust of Forrest was first installed in 1978 and has been the object of heated opposition ever since; it’s not hard to understand why. Forrest, a wealthy plantation owner who made much of his fortune through the trading of enslaved people, quickly rose up the ranks of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. During the war, he led the Battle of Fort Pillow, a bloody conflict where 300 surrendered Union soldiers, most of them Black, were massacred by Forrest and his troops. Following the war, Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He died in 1877 at the age of 56 in Memphis, where he is buried.
“Forrest represents pain, suffering and brutal crimes committed against African Americans, and that pain is very real for our fellow Tennesseans as they walk the halls of our statehouse and evaluate how he could be one of just the nine busts elevated to a place of reverence,” The Tennessean reported Lee as saying in a video message presented during the five-hour March 8 commission meeting in which members overwhelmingly voted to relocate the bust.
The decision to remove the bust of Forrest from the capitol building has, for many activists and historians, been a very long time coming. In recent weeks, the Tennessee chapter of the ACLU entered the fray, referring to Forrest as a “brutal architect of structural racism” and stating that the presence of the bust in the capitol as “antithetical to the values of decency, respect and equality that most Tennesseans share.” Following the Capitol Commission vote in July, The Tennessean published a comprehensive piece on the bust-removal saga.
Republicans rallying against the relocation of the bust have largely dismissed it as an instance of “cancel culture” run amok and many seem to believe that an “overhaul” of the historic commission could prevent the removal/relocation of monuments to controversial historic figures from happening in the future.
“In our culture today it seems there is a desire to cancel history, cancel culture, cancel narratives that are just based on fact. I think that that’s a dangerous precedent,” Sen. Janice Bowling, a bill co-sponsor from Tullahoma in mid-south Tennessee, reportedly said.
Nashville-based media outlet News Channel 5 reported that while the Forrest bust did not explicitly come up in this week’s meeting of the state senate’ Government Operations Committee, members of the committee “made references to decisions the historical commission has recently made.”
When reached for comment by Nashville’s FOX 17 News, THC spokesperson Susan McClamroch relayed that members are “very concerned with where this bill is going and its impact on the historical commission.”