Family of senator who led effort to place Forrest bust in Capitol supports its removal

The doors of the state Capitol were closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The State Capitol Commission voted 9-2 to recommend removing the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the statehouse, clearing the first major hurdle toward getting the monument relocated to the Tennessee State Museum.

Forrest gained notoriety for his exploits as a Confederate cavalry general during the Civil War, but his prior career as a slave trader and his later leadership role in the Ku Klux Klan have long raised protests about whether it was appropriate for his likeness to be so prominently displayed at the Capitol.

While the bust was placed in the Capitol in 1978 at the behest of what was a rural Democratic majority in the General Assembly, Republicans have largely taken up the mantle of resisting its removal since taking over control. In the Senate, personal factors have come into play. The late Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) was instrumental in getting the bust placed in the Capitol in the 1970s. Henry, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is revered by Republicans who served with him for his conservative approach to fiscal and social issues.

But Henry’s children and adult grandchildren wrote to the State Capitol Commission this week to urge the panel to move Forrest bust out of the building:

My siblings and I have debated the following question recently: would our father see the continued presence of the bust of Forrest as a benefit to the state of Tennessee? My brother Bob wrote to me, in a manner reminiscent of our late father, that he believes that our father would “concede posthumously, to its dismissal from the Capitol Building.” We, the undersigned, agree.

Read the full letter below:

Dear Commissioner Eley,

Hello. My name is Kathryn Henry-Choisser, and I am one of the late Sen. Douglas Henry’s daughters. It has come to my attention that the State Capitol Commission will be meeting on July 9th, and that the fate of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest is likely to be decided at that meeting. I, along with most of my siblings and a majority of the grandchildren of voting age, politely request that the statue be removed.

As you know, 47 years ago, my father first proposed that a bust of Forrest be placed in the beautiful Tennessee State Capitol. Funds were raised, a sculpture was created, and a few years later the bust was placed in a niche on the second floor of the Capitol. I feel confident that the placement of the sculpture caused anger, disappointment, and shock to many Tennesseans in 1978. Over the decades however, we have all been made increasingly aware of the pain and anguish this statue continues to cause. I believe that this pain and anguish can no longer be ignored. I also believe, as did my father, that lawmakers are held to a higher moral standard than the average citizen, since the lawmakers’ beliefs and the laws they pass have long term legal and ethical implications for the voters they represent. So I must ask you why – in the sacred halls where laws affecting all Tennesseans are passed – is this statue allowed to remain? How can the laws be trusted, the lawmakers themselves be trusted- if the presence of a man such as Nathan Bedford Forrest is allowed?

And, on a personal and possibly more self-serving level, it saddens me deeply to know that this statue and the abhorrent, dark history of the man depicted in it have come to be so inextricably linked to my father. I am so very proud of my father and what he achieved during his lifetime. There is so much more to my father than this bewildering bust in residence in the Capitol. He was a brilliant, articulate, well-read, witty, curious, and unfailingly polite man. He loved Tennessee, and he did so much good for the state of Tennessee and all its citizens. However, the good that my father did is being overshadowed and slowly erased because this sculpture is allowed to remain in the State Capitol. The debate that continues to rage around its tenure serves to ensure that, and therefore it will continue to eat away at my father’s legacy until this statue is removed.

I offer you a story. Mary Johnson, an African-American woman, lived with my parents and oversaw their care for the last 9 to 10 years of their lives. During this time, she became an integral part of our family. My father and Ms. Johnson developed an unshakeable connection. She called him “Papa”, just like me & my siblings, and she confronted him on certain issues that the rest of us were too hesitant to talk to him about. He respected Mary, but more importantly, he loved her. I know that Mary helped alter and expand some of my father’s beliefs over the course of their friendship. I believe that if Mary had looked my father in the eye and explained to my father, in her own words, why the statue needed to be removed – and if she asked him to take it down – he would have tried to make it happen.

So, for Mary Johnson, for my family, and for all the citizens of Tennessee who feel regret, pain, anger, frustration, (or, like me, utter shame) upon seeing these kinds of statues & memorials – and to honor the distinguished legacy of my father- please remove the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee State Capitol.

While I will always consider Nashville, Tennessee to be my “home”, I currently live in Richmond, Virginia, where the Confederate statues are literally being ripped from their pedestals. The Civil War ended 155 years ago. These Confederate statues have had their long and selfish moment. The energy spent trying to keep these statues in place is simply another “lost cause”. The Confederate sculptures, including the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, serve no purpose but to sow division, cause harm, and prevent deep wounds from healing. If some people are worried that history is being erased, well – that is what museums and history books are for. Meanwhile, the nation and the world are watching to see what decisions people in positions of power are making to effect meaningful change within the systems that continue to oppress people of color.

Our father loved the State of Tennessee in a deep and enduring way. During his 44 years as a State Senator, his profound love of Tennessee and Tennesseans provided the foundation of his deliberations when deciding how he should vote. He would consider the views of the people he represented. He would consider his personal beliefs. Many factors would be weighed and processed, and the scales would tip one way or the other – aye or nay. Ultimately, he would ask himself and his fellow lawmakers: does this decision benefit the state of Tennessee?

My siblings and I have debated the following question recently: would our father see the continued presence of the bust of Forrest as a benefit to the state of Tennessee? My brother Bob wrote to me, in a manner reminiscent of our late father, that he believes that our father would “concede posthumously, to its dismissal from the Capitol Building.” We, the undersigned, agree. Thank you for your time and for considering our request. May justice and goodness prevail at the State Capitol Commission meeting on July 9th.

Kathryn C. Henry-Choisser

On behalf of and with the knowledge and consent of:

Lolly Henry Hickey

Robert S. Henry

Mary Leland Henry Wehner

Marty R. Clark

Corinne McMahon Cook

Sarah Kathryn Thompson

Henry F. Choisser

Camille L. Kinloch

Leland C. Henry

Samuel R. Henry


30 Responses to Family of senator who led effort to place Forrest bust in Capitol supports its removal

  • David Collins says:

    So eloquently said. You can tell this “apple” did not fall far from the tree. Douglas Henry was one of the most honorable men I ever had the pleasure, and privilege, to know. I believe his daughter states exactly the way he would now respond to the question of relocating this statue.

  • Beatrice Shaw says:

    Sounds like Henry was a racist southern white old school Democrat in sheep’s clothing to me….many back ‘in the day’ secretly were racists. Strom Thurmond comes to mind as similar

  • Stuart I. Anderson says:

    This is how wealthy societies decline and disappear. At first generation(s) achieve increasing wealth through gaining marketable skills and or education then succeeding generations live comfortably if not opulently and they lose their zest for life let alone the ideology of liberty and freedom. A sort of sad psychological deterioration overtakes the best of families where capitulation to the zeitgeist rather than standing for principle is often seen. Thankfully I didn’t have any children so I will be spared from seeing what has apparently happened to the Henry family happen to my own.

    • MARLE says:

      The Last time I was in Germany I drove down Adolph Hitler Boulevard past the Huge Statue of him with his hand held high in a Sieg Heil salute.

      Only did then did my memory of the fact that Hitler existed get jogged. Good thing statues are erected and historic names are given to streets, bridges and the like. Otherwise we wouldn’t remember history.

      Give me a break!

      • Stuart I. Anderson says:

        Statues are erected primarily to honor the person or event rather than to jog viewers memory of the person or event. MARLE, the allies were not a bit amused by the Nazi regime so they blew up statues of Nazis and renamed things named after Nazis in a very unsmiling denazification program so that auto trip of yours was only a bad dream. Please get it out of your head.

        • MARLE says:

          Actually that is NOT why the statues came down. It was a demand the US made on Germany.

        • MARLE says:

          You know the Eddies and James of the world have been posting here over and over that the statues are not to Honor men but to remember men. I thought since I have never read any of your comments that challenge that oft-repeated rationale (and I know you read most posts) you were a subscriber.

  • Eddie White says:

    Thinking of Sen Henry makes me smile. If there ever was a southern gentleman it was Douglas Henry. He was a conservative southern Democrat. I remember sharing a table with him years ago at a UT Alumni dinner. I loved talking with him and listening to his deep southern dialect. No, he was not a racist. Yes, he cared about his native Tennessee and native south. I would not pretend to know his thoughts today except to say I don’t feel he would appreciate statues being torn down by mob violence.

  • Elizabeth Mayhall says:

    Senator Henry worked so very hard and did so much good for the people of Nashville and the State of Tennessee. Many people are not aware of all his good deeds as he went about them quietly with dogged determination. Considering the events of the day, I agree that he would want the statue moved to the museum. Justin Wilson’s request to remove Admiral Farragut would have been the compromise that, I believe, the Senator would have requested. It’s time to relegate that war to where it belongs, the Tennessee State Museum. You all just made a difference and that is the highest compliment that I can give. Senator Henry made a difference and would be so very proud of you today as am I.

    • Kathryn Henry-Choisser says:

      Elizabeth – Wow! Hello old friend! I’m not sure how comments work on this site or if you will see this reply, but thank you for your kind words about Papa. I agree – I think he would be very satisfied with the recommendation of the State Capitol Commission. Hope you are doing well. Kathryn

  • “Meanwhile, the nation and the world are watching to see what decisions people in positions of power are making to effect meaningful change within the systems that continue to oppress people of color”.

    Was a fair letter till I got to the line above. Was that borrowed from CNN or BLM?
    Please be specific before you you use such harmful and devisive rhetoric. Are you trying to tear the country apart?

  • Sue Allison says:

    Senator Henry was as fine as they come and would be heartbroken to know that the bust has caused such pain and divisivenessin his beloved Tennessee. Hooray for the family and the commission members who voted for its removal. Shame on those who didn’t.

  • John Stewart says:

    Interesting that no one mentioned that Nathan Bedford Forrest ran like a scared rabbit when Grant won the Battle of Fort Donelson early in the Civil War. Yes, he continued to harass Union forces until Lee surrendered but it’s hard to forget that when Fort Donelson was under attack by Grant, Forrest jumped on his horse and took off. “Cut and run” I believe describes it accurately. So, not only was Forrest a racist, he was a cowardly racist.

    • Randy Hendon says:

      General Forrest was the greatest Warrior in Tennessee history! He lost over 30 horses
      during the War – this is documented – and at Shiloh he accidentally rode into a Union
      force and escaped by taking a Union private as a Human shield. So sad to see the vote in the
      Capitol Commission but the relocation will never pass the final hurdle – the Historical Commission.

  • Henry Walker says:

    Just in case anyone wants to know what Forrest really did at Fort Donelson:

    It was General Pillow who ignominiously abandoned his post, escaping in a small boat.

    • Mark Rogers says:

      Well said Henry. Forrest distinguished himself by fighting through Grant’s siege to take his unit to safety. There are many things one canncriticize about Forrest but a lack of courage isn’t any of them.

    • Randy Hendon says:

      good call Henry!

  • Susan says:

    The Henry I knew as my State Senator would have known history–as would the journalists of his time. Forrest later in life was an outspoken advocate for education, apprenticeships and job opportunities for freed slaves. He was lauded by the precursor of the the NAACP and thousands of former slaves attended his memorial service. He was the worst of the worst who found repentance, redemption and new purpose. It is such a sign of the times that we do not know our own history and want to wipe out the history we think know. If conquering racism and changing the hearts and minds of others were truly the goal, Forrest would be used as an example. Instead we sit in ignorance. But then I don’t believe the current political climate–where you are deemed a racist for basic matters of DNA–has room for grace or repentance much less redemption, as it is more about stoking divisiveness to accumulate power. The Senator Henry I knew would have recognized from his knowledge of history how problematic it is that Patrisse Cullors has publicly admitted, “We are trained Marxists.”

  • Eddie White says:

    Susan, thank you for your informative post. As usual there is more to the story than we hear in the media. That is why we have informed commissions such as the Historical Commission to review these decisions. Much preferable to an angry and often ignorant mob.

  • James White says:

    Donna Locke,
    Zinc is needed to fight viral infections. Once mechanism is inhibiton of RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, which is essential to the replication of coronaviruses and several other viruses. Hydroxycloroquine and other ionophores such as quercetin and elderberry facilitate zinc entry ionto the cell – and hydroxychloroquine is far more likely to be effective if zinc is added. Zinc, like vitamin C, may be depleted in fighting viral infections. Repletion is urgent if the patient develops tinnitus, depression, or smell and taste disorders. Beef and poultry are good sources; meat shortages would worsen dietary deficiencies.

    • James White says:

      Add Zinc, C, D, with Elderberry!

      • Donna Locke says:

        Thanks, Mickey. I’ll pass that along to my daughter. I had already sent them Vitamin D3 and the children’s multivitamins.

        A good way to get some zinc is in the Ocuvite Adult 50+ supplement for the eyes. Yeah, I see the connection with this virus. Zinc is indeed tied to taste and smell. Thanks.

        As for the subject at hand, I said a long time ago the Forrest bust should be moved. Find another way to tell the story.

        Southerners, white and black together, have a sense of place and kinship that is different from other parts of the country, and deep down, that is what this is about with some whites — a sense of holding the center together. I understand it. But I know, too, that my generation, the boomers, were and are here to make adjustments and course corrections, and we need to finish some tasks before we leave the stage entirely. I’ve written an op-ed for my local paper that is kind of about this. I may submit it. I’m debating. Our newspaper went off the rails some time back.

        • Stuart I. Anderson says:

          Donna, how is your family doing?

          • Donna Locke says:

            Stuart, they are doing great. They have no symptoms now, except my daughter has the remnants of the rash she had. Initially, she was going into the chest tightening and shortness of breath, which is a danger signal, but she got over this quickly, and I believe the elderberry helped. I told them to keep taking it awhile even though they feel well now. They are going to be retested.

            Except for my son-in-law, who won’t take anything, they all took the elderberry. My son-in-law got the sickest and for the longest time but is doing well now, my daughter said. He is a chef, and I worried about him losing his senses of taste and smell. I told them today to eat food that has zinc.

          • Stuart I. Anderson says:

            That is good news. Thanks.

  • Michael Smith says:

    Nathan Bedford Forrest was a coward and a murderer .Union troops surrendered to Bedford’s army. He had all the black soldiers murdered. He was responsible for the Klan being organized. The Klan is and was one of the mostly cowardly and murderous groups their has ever been. They were so cowardly they covered their faces. The Klan have always been red neck Nazis. Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of them.

  • John Stewart says:

    Anyone want to comment on Forrest’s murder of black soldiers at Fort Pillow, one of the most egregious and cruel actions of the entire Civil War? “Fort Pillow marked one of the bleakest, saddest events of American military history,” wrote military historian David J. Eicher. As reported in Wikipedia, “Surviving members of the garrison said that most of their men surrendered and threw down their arms only to be shot or bayoneted by the attackers. . . ” So enough of this nonsense of trying to forget about this heinous act and whitewash his actions. This man has no place in the State Capitol. Let’s get the removal accomplished and move on.

  • Molly Mann says:

    “These Confederate statues have had their long and selfish moment.” Nicely said

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