With N.B. Forrest staying at TN capitol, should W.G. ‘Parson’ Brownlow return?

At least three Democratic state legislators tell the Nashville Scene they’d like to see a portrait of Republican Gov. William G. “Parson” Brownlow returned to the state Capitol building, reversing a 1987 decision – when Democrats controlled the General Assembly – that sent the controversial Reconstruction governor’s likeness to the state museum. But the idea doesn’t seem to have much support from Republicans, now the state’s majority party.

As a backdrop, of course, there’s the controversy over a efforts to remove a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Capitol. The State Capitol Commission recently rejected a proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam, supported by most Democrats, to move the bust to the state museum.

Quoted as supporting the return of Brownlow’s portrait – which once had to be restored because so many tobacco-chewing people spit on it over the years — are Democratic Reps. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis and John Ray Clemmons of Nashville along with Sen. Jeff Yarbro, also of Nashville.

Akbari: “Unlike Forrest, I don’t think he (Brownlow) stood for hate… And his actions were about unity — he brought Tennessee back into the Union. I mean, he was a governor! I think all governors deserve to have their portraits circulated in the Capitol — even Andrew Jackson.”

Further excerpts from the article:

In the 1970s, Sen. Douglas Henry, a Nashville Democrat, had a bust of Forrest installed in the Capitol with the financial support of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. A decade later, within a month of the Brownlow portrait’s reinstallation, the Capitol Restoration Committee — led by Henry and with nary a Republican on it — voted to move Brownlow’s visage to the Tennessee State Museum for all time.

According to a New York Times report at the time, Henry said the painting had to go “to avoid having impressionable school children come to the conclusion that we rank among our highest principles of government, worthy of emulation, the manipulation of elections, however sincere the manipulator, and the denial of civil liberties to Tennesseans, either in general or by means of armed force in particular.”

Henry’s arguments for removing Brownlow’s portrait sound awfully similar to those who have tried, and failed, to get the bust of Forrest removed from the Capitol since it was installed in 1978.

… “No one else has expressed that concern to me,” says state Sen. Jack Johnson, a Franklin Republican who (as a member of the Capitol Commission) voted to keep Forrest on display.

“I’ve never heard that mentioned,” added state Rep. Steve McDaniel (R-Parker’s Crossroads), a noted Civil War history buff who also voted to keep the Forrest bust. “I just know that some people don’t care for him.”

… (On bringing back Brownlow’s portrait) Johnson says he’d “be happy to consider it”; McDaniel says he didn’t know whether he’d support the move. House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally both declined to comment on the matter.

Gov. Bill Haslam says he still wants the Forrest bust moved but wouldn’t “get into all of that” about Brownlow, although he does say, with a laugh, “He was the last governor from Knoxville before me.”

Knoxville News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy, in a recent column, also backed the idea of bringing Brownlow’s portrait back to the Capitol.  He found a comment from the late Rep. Buddy Scruggs of Knoxville from 1987 and repeated it as a bottom line. (Scruggs was House Republican Caucus chairman at the time.)

”Even if Gov. Brownlow is a wart in our history, let’s don’t paint it the way we want it to be – let’s look at warts and all.”

The next step seems clear. With Forrest staying, Brownlow should be restored to a position of prominence in the Capitol.

Warts and all.

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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