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

 

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