Story by Matthew Giffin | News Editor
Four years after the Tennessee Historical Commission denied Middle Tennessee State University’s request to change the name of a building dedicated to the Confederate leader of the Ku Klux Klan in 1958, President Sidney McPhee remains committed to seeing Forrest Hall have another name.
“I continue to believe that renaming Forrest Hall is the right thing to do,” said McPhee, noting that in the past four years his office and the university’s Board of Trustees have continued the effort.
“In my opinion, we must be strategic and thorough in this second attempt, which requires patience and persistence,” McPhee told Sidelines in an email on Friday.
Forrest Hall, which houses the university’s ROTC program, is named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who became the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. Since the 1970s, there have been calls from students and faculty for the name to be changed. Forrest, it should be noted, has no ties to the school.
The Forrest Hall Task Force
The latest renaming effort came under study in 2015, when McPhee appointed a 17-member task force, an assembly of university faculty, alumni, students, ministers and elected officials, to review a change. Among the task force members were mixed opinions about the building’s name and whether it should be changed, according to the task force’s report.
One member of the task force was Bill Ketron, now the mayor of Rutherford County. As a state senator in 2017, Ketron sponsored a bill signed into law that changed the requirements needed from the Tennessee Historical Commission to rename Forrest Hall. Rather than a simple majority, the new law required a two-thirds vote.
The task force held two meetings that were open to the public as well as three open forums. On April 28, 2016, McPhee accepted a recommendation to move forward with renaming the building.
McPhee passed it along to the Tennessee Board of Regents, a governing body that sets policy for Tennessee’s state universities and community colleges. And, on June 24, 2016, the TBR voted to endorse MTSU’s decision to move forward with the name change.
The Tennessee Historical Commission
Because MTSU is a public university, the decision now moved to the Tennessee Historical Commission, the agency responsible for historic preservation in Tennessee. Its mission is “to protect, preserve, interpret, maintain, and administer historic places,” according to the agency’s website.
On Sept. 20, 2016, McPhee sent a letter to the commission citing an intent to request a waiver to rename Forrest Hall as the “Army ROTC Building.”
The school intended to secure a hearing with the Tennessee Historical Commission during their scheduled meeting on Feb. 17 of the following year, providing time for the university to prepare to state their case before the Commission. However, MTSU’s hearing with the commission was delayed until Feb. 16, 2018.
The hearing lasted five hours and ended in a 17-5 vote from the Tennessee Historical Commission that denied MTSU’s request to change the name of Forrest Hall.
At that point, the university had the option to appeal the commission’s denial in Chancery Court. In a meeting with McPhee and university general counsel Heidi Zimmerman, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery indicated that MTSU would need to hire outside legal counsel, since the attorney general’s office would be in danger of conflict of interest if it represented both entities.
In an email to university faculty on June 6, 2018, McPhee announced he would not appeal the Tennessee Historical Commission’s denial, citing significant costs that an appeal would likely incur.
“Given these circumstances, I believe the money we would pay to retain outside counsel should instead be used toward our mission of supporting student success resulting in degree completion,” McPhee told the faculty in his 2018 email.
The Second Effort
But the university president said he remains committed to finding a way to change the name of Forrest Hall. On Aug. 20, 2021, McPhee wrote an opinion column for The Tennesseean stating his grievances with the building’s name.
“We don’t need Forrest’s name on a building to educate our students. Like the bust that was in the State Capitol, such vestiges are best placed in a museum and the history books.”Sidney McPhee, MTSU President
“Seeing Forrest’s name on the building is painful and infuriating to many – including me,” McPhee wrote. “We don’t need Forrest’s name on a building to educate our students. Like the bust that was in the State Capitol, such vestiges are best placed in a museum and the history books.”
On Sept. 14, 2021, in the wake of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust being removed from Tennessee’s state capitol that summer, the MTSU Board of Trustees voted unanimously to launch a second effort to gain the state’s permission to rename Forrest Hall, MTSU Sidelines reported.
Earlier that year on Feb. 24, the editors of MTSU Sidelines posted an open letter addressed to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and the Tennessee Historical Commission asking them to rename Forrest Hall. A counter displaying how many days have passed since the letter’s publishing is prominent on the website’s masthead.
In his Friday email, President McPhee remained hopeful a solution will be found. “I will keep the campus informed when a significant development occurs. Meanwhile, please know I continue to believe that renaming Forrest Hall is the right thing to do. The name of this building, and the emotions it evokes, distracts from the values, goals and priorities we share as a modern, inclusive and comprehensive university.”
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