A Call and Response to the Capitol Commission’s Historic Vote

Bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest on display in the Tennessee State Capitol. Shelley Mays/The Tennessean
Bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest on display in the Tennessee State Capitol. Shelley Mays/The Tennessean

Dear all–

We join a number of people today rejoicing to hear that the Capitol Commissioners voted to remove the bust of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, U.S. Admiral David Farragut, and U.S. Admiral Albert Gleaves from the capitol building. Wednesday, July 8, VDS Black faculty and staff wrote and signed a letter (see below) to Governor Lee, Lt. Gov. McNally, Capitol Commissioners, and the Tennessee Historical Commission in an attempt to appeal to the moral conscience of Tennessee leaders. We would like to think that the collective power of interfaith clergy groups, capitol hill protesters, hundreds of independent citizens, the Tennessee Black Legislative Caucus, VDS Black faculty and staff, faculty and staff colleagues in VDS and the university, several Republican lawmakers, and the testimony of Governor Lee, moved the needle on how the state will continue to think about statuary and the symbolic power of portraiture, monuments, and busts. While we celebrate this historic win, we also note that moving these busts to a museum exhibit honoring Tennessee military heroes, actually perpetuates Tennessee’s longstanding practice of remembering, celebrating, and longing for a pre-Civil War world and a reenactment of Jim Crow values. In other words, relocation is not eradication. But our hope is that Tennessee, like so many other states across our nation, will continue to reckon with the legacy of its past in order to foster a deeper understanding and a broader sense of history and public memory.


Amy Steele, Assistant Dean for Student Life

Phillis Sheppard, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

Emilie Townes, Dean

Delivered on Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Dear Governor Lee, Lt. Governor McNally, the Capitol Commissioners, and the Tennessee Historical Commission:

Greetings. We, the undersigned, correspond today on an important matter before us, namely, the removal of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from our state capitol. We wish to address a few ideas related to the removal, which include principles for considering the public commemoration of our history, criteria for judging the removal of this busts and other commemorative statues on the grounds of our governing bodies, and ideals for determining whether the principles for public monuments align with our democratic aspirations. Outlining principles to consider for the public commemoration of historic figures and events, we believe, will go far in helping our country understand just what is at stake in the removal of these statues.

There may already exist principles operating behind the architecture of commemoration for our state. If there are such principles, the public should be made aware. In their absence, democratic principles around a proposal to commemorate the people of our state are worthy of review. Among such principles are whether or not this architecture of commemoration supports the democratic ideals of freedom and equality for all state citizens. Two, does the architecture commemorate the noble arbiters of justice and equality, ideals that the state openly respects and espouses? And three, does the statuary garner, commend, or otherwise support economic and social justice for the people of the great state of Tennessee without injury to persons regardless of their race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, religion or creed?

The criteria judging removal of commemorative architecture is an important conversation. In their book, Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory, Owen J. Dwyer and Derek H. Alderman note, “the subtle social authority” and “symbolic power” and the “audience attraction” of monuments. The authority, power, and attraction they note is captured so well in a WBIR online news story from June 9, 2020 (“Nothing New| Nathan Bedford Forrest bust was always controversial.” The story revisits a 1980 picture of leaders of the KKK donning their hoods and robes, meeting beneath the statue in the capitol with the caption, “Forrest ‘Appropriately’ Oversees Klan Meet.” The story underscores both the controversy around the bust and the ways in which it has been coopted by white hate groups in our state. Criteria for removing commemorative architecture from public property should consider the threat of the perpetuation of an inadvertent orthodoxy.  In the case of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the KKK, orchestrator of the massacre of 300 black union soldiers, known enslaver, the orthodoxy being perpetuated is that of white supremacy. Also, because removal of confederate monuments are highly contested now on the grounds of historical relevancy, removal must consider the politics of commemoration. We recognize that all statuary is value-laden. If the statuary located on state property glorifies the legacy of enslavement, white terror, and otherwise white supremacist ideals, then their removal is justified for failing to meet the democratic ideals of freedom and justice for all Tennesseans.

We cannot move forward in our state under idolatrous notions of racial hierarchies concretized in the statuary of people with legacies of violence, hatred, and white supremacist ideals. These ideals go against our highest religious and moral values, values that foster notions of a common humanity with common democratic needs for common economic survival and cultural respect.

Why the capitol anyway, if the intended message is not: TN legislators are governed by the ghosts of the Confederacy? Is this the moral rule of law: the preservation of an arbitrary standard of whiteness and the denial of the full humanity of ALL people of the state?

We appeal to your moral conscience and deep sense of service for all the people the state of Tennessee.

Best regards,

Phillis I. Sheppard, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Rev. Amy E. Steele, Ph.D.
Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Community Life
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Rev. Emilie M. Townes, Ph.D.
E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Rev. Lisa L. Thompson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and the Cornelius Vanderbilt Chancellor Faculty Fellow of Black Homiletics and Liturgics
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Rev. Forrest E. Harris, Sr., D.Min.
Associate Professor of the Practice of Ministry
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Rev. Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, Ph.D.
E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Associate Professor of Ethics & Society
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Victor Anderson, Ph.D.
Oberlin Theological School Professor of Ethics and Society,
Vanderbilt Divinity School and the College of Arts and Sciences

Rev. Herbert R. Marbury, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Rev. Teresa L. Smallwood, J.D., Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate Director
Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Sha’Tika Brown
Program Manager
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Juan M. Floyd-Thomas Ph.D.
Associate Professor of African American Religious History
Vanderbilt Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion

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