MTSU President Sidney McPhee, representatives to testify for name change of Forrest Hall before Tennessee Historical Commission


MTSU student protesters join hands outside of Forrest Hall after their final protest of the semester on Monday, November 11, 2015 (MTSU Sidelines/Meagan White).

Photo by Meagan White / MTSU Sidelines Archive

MTSU President Sidney McPhee and other MTSU representatives will be testifying before the Tennessee Historical Commission on Friday in hopes that the commission will grant the university’s petition for waiver to change the name of Forrest Hall.

The hearing will be held in the William R. Snodgrass Tennessee Tower at 9 a.m. and will be in the presence of Administrative Law Judge Thomas G. Stovall and the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Forrest Hall, a building on the MTSU campus that houses the university’s Army Reserve Officers Training Corps program, has been the source of contention for years due to the fact that it is named after Confederate Army General and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. Several protests and marches have been held on campus, which led to the creation of the 16-member Forrest Hall Task Force. The involvement of the task force and MTSU students led McPhee to accept a recommendation to change the name in April 2016. The Tennessee Board of Regents affirmed McPhee’s decision, and a petition for waiver was filed with the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Forrest Hall, however, is not the only reminder of the late Bedford County native that has stirred controversy. For almost 40 years, a bust of Forrest has been on the Tennessee State Capitol’s second floor, causing Tennessee Rep. Brenda Gilmore to introduce a bill to move the statue in February. Gov. Bill Haslam also spearheaded an attempt to remove the bust in September of last year.

University Counsel Heidi Zimmerman and McPhee are confirmed to be a part of the presentation that will occur before the Tennessee Historical Commission on Friday. Derek Frisby, an MTSU lecturer and the chair of the Forrest Hall Task Force, will be in attendance in case the commission has questions about the task force process, according to MTSU Director of News and Media Relations Jimmy Hart. Louis Kyriakoudes, an MTSU history professor and director of the Albert Gore Research Center on campus, will also serve as an expert witness at the hearing and will be testifying on the history of Confederate symbols at MTSU.

“Representatives, like Kyriakoudes, will be there to provide context,” Hart said. “It’s somewhat of a historical debate, and I think that sort of expert testimony will be beneficial to the commission. There will be questions about historical relevance and accuracy about Forrest.”

“The university plans to present its case as to why the Forrest Hall name should be changed, and I think we have a very strong argument,” Hart said. “We’re just going to lay out our reasoning … and I feel like we have a strong case.”

Hart told Sidelines that, even if the Tennessee Historical Commission grants the waiver, it could be months before a change will occur. Hart said that there are several organizations that may be testifying for the Forrest Hall name to remain the same on Friday. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, for example, will be in attendance with legal counsel and two witnesses, according to Hart. If the waiver is granted or rejected, entities from either side of the debate can submit an appeal to the commission and prolong the process.

“Long story short, it could be several months before this is finally resolved,” Hart said. “(The hearing) is just the next step in the process. It’s an important step, obviously … Any entity that disapproves of the commission’s decision can appeal. There will be at least one organization, maybe more, that will be speaking out against the name change.”

Hart said that MTSU is the first entity to go through the waiver process that was recently instituted by the Tennessee Historical Commission to deal with these kinds of incidents.

“The commission and university will be learning, as we go along, the things we need to do to complete this process,” Hart said.

The hearing comes days after fliers from a white supremacist group, Vanguard America, were found on the MTSU campus.

“These groups have been spreading fliers around the country,” Hart said. “We don’t want to give those groups any more oxygen than they have. They’re looking for attention, and we’re focused on this waiver. But, at the same time, when these incidents pop up, the university is committed to diversity. While we are committed to free speech, we feel obligated to speak out when these groups try to spread discord on the campus … We’ll be committed to doing positive things, and hopefully, the waiver will be granted on Friday.”

Hart said that the hearing and overall controversy surrounding Forrest Hall is a part of a larger debate.

“I think its apparent in recent years that there have been increased discussions about the appropriateness of Confederate iconography in public spaces,” Hart said. “A perfect example is the Forrest bust in the state capitol … I think this discussion that we are having with the waiver is a part of a larger discussion that we are having as a state, region and nation.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

 

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