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Who Was Nathan Bedford Forrest?

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Posted at 9:30 PM, Jul 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-30 16:43:37-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - While many historical figures are likened to myths over time, historian and curator Jim Hoobler says it’s important to remember they were simply men.

“There are all sorts of stories about him. He had something like seven horses shot out from under him in battle,” Hoobler said, talking about one of the most polarizing figures in Tennessee state history: Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest lived 150 years ago but in 2015 the controversy surrounding him is reaching a boiling point.

“We don't need to celebrate the founder of the Ku Klux Klan as one of our primary celebration days in Tennessee,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D, Nashville). Monday, Stewart filed a bill to abolish Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, celebrated July 13.

Last week Nashville's Metro Council moved to cover the I-65 private monument to Forrest with brush.

And soon the Capitol Commission will discuss whether the controversial bust of Forrest belongs on state grounds.

Tennessee State Museum Curator Jim Hoobler also curates for the Capitol. He said he was against the bust when it was placed there in the 80s. Now that it’s been there for decades he thinks it should stay.

“I think it’s part of our story, it’s part of who made us who we are,” he said, “and if you forget who we are and where we come from you may have to go through the whole thing again.”

He also notes that Tennessee-born US naval commander David Farragut is right across from Forrest at the Capitol. He says the two together demonstrate how Tennessee was split during the Civil War.

Hoobler also said while most people know Forrest as a slave owner, a Klan founder and for attacking men after they surrendered at Fort Pillow, there's a lot they don't know.

“He was a man of his time but he also evolved,” he said.

He says Forrest dumped the Klan after less than two years and started advocating for African American rights.

“He calls for educating them and bringing them into mainstream culture,” said Hoobler.

He said Forrest rallied against those involved with lynching.

“He was going to get a posse together and in his words ‘exterminate’ those who were killing blacks.”

While his alleged personal growth may not change many people’s minds about whether he deserves continued state honors, historians say it’s important to understand it's not all black and white.

“All people are not 100 percent good or 100 percent bad. He’s a complex character,” Hoobler said.

The Capitol Commission is made up of lawmakers, commissioners and people appointed. The group will meet to discuss what to do about the Forrest bust Friday at 9 a.m.

Meantime TDOT said it will not spend taxpayer dollars to cover the monument on I-65 with brush because it is on private land. TDOT was highly criticized for cutting down the brush to better show the monument in the 90s.