The State Capitol Commission voted 7-5 against issuing a petition to moving the bust from the Capitol to the new state museum being built nearby. It would have been the first step in a lengthy process laid out by Tennessee’s “Heritage Protection Act” that limits the removal or changing of historical memorials on public property.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam called for the removal after last month’s deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He had previously called for removing it after the 2015 slayings of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.
Finance Commissioner Larry Martin sponsored the proposal to move the bust.
“The Civil War, and Tennessee’s role in it, is part of our history. It needs to be recognized and understood, but not celebrated,” he said. “The Tennessee state Capitol building should be a place that represents a united Tennessee rather than a divided one.”
Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the governor was “very disappointed” by Friday’s decision.
Forrest amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before enlisting. State lawmakers voted to place his bust in the Capitol more than a century after the Civil War ended.
Comptroller Justin Wilson spoke out against the unelected panel overruling the Legislature’s vote in 1973 to place the bust in the Capitol.
“That resolution very clearly showed an intent from the General Assembly to have Gen. Forrest placed where he is now,” said Wilson, who was elected by the GOP-controlled Legislature. “I am concerned about this commission — while we have the power to reverse the action of the General Assembly — exercising that power.”
Commission member Howard Gentry, the criminal court clerk in Nashville, voted to move the bust now instead of waiting for lawmakers to act.
“When I was a little boy and came into the state Capitol, there were colored bathrooms. And that bothered me — it bothers me today, and it never will leave me,” said Gentry, who is black. “There legislative sessions where nobody suggested to take them down, until the time called for it.”
Bob Martineau, the state commissioner of environment and conservation, noted that the Heritage Protection Act requires proposed changes to be evaluated by the panel.
“If the Legislature had intended to have a different set of criteria for statues and busts on the second floor of the Capitol … they could have set up a different procedure,” said Martineau, who voted for the failed proposal.