MTSU sees name feud as opportunity for Civil War education
By BYRON HENSLEY
The MTSU administration is not ready to take a position in the controversy over Forrest Hall, but it is looking at the controversy as an opportunity to foster discussion about the Civil War and related issues, a university official said.
The controversy erupted recently when MTSU’s Student Government Association approved a resolution to recommend removing the name "Forrest" from the Forrest Hall military science building, named after Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. University officials will meet Monday to discuss ways to foster an educated debate about the propriety of Forrest’s name on a university building, said Bob Glenn, vice president for student affairs.
"I think our basic position is — We think this is an excellent opportunity to have a conversation about a variety of interesting issues, such as, when you have something like a civil war, where one side wins and one side loses, what’s the best way to remember, what’s the best way to respond?" Glenn said.
For now, the university is likely not going to take any immediate action regarding the name change.
"I think we want to take the time to look at the issues, and take time to make good choices." he said.
Glenn also said MTSU President Sidney McPhee is also not prepared to take sides in the debate for now.
"I think he’d like to see what course it’s going to take before he weighs in," he said. "He’s the final arbiter, and he’s trying to give the process a chance to work, the process of public conversation and contemplation."
That process will likely include public forums or discussions in which all sides of the issue may be heard, Glenn said.
"We’re going to have some very public conversations," he said. "It’s not just going to be our campus community. We’re going to open it up to the public, and make it very transparent."
For that reason, a number of faculty, staff, students and other members of the MTSU community have been called to a meeting at 10 a.m. Monday in Glenn’s office, to discuss what should be talked about in these discussions, he said.
"The purpose of the meeting is to sit down, talk about what do we want to happen, pick out target dates to look at this," he said. "We hope what we start Monday will result in a series of open public meetings where we can talk about a variety of topics. I don’t know whether we’ll call them conversations, debates or town hall meetings."
Among those who have been asked to participate in Monday’s meeting include some students; Bob Womack, considered one of the leading local experts on Civil War history; Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation; Ralph Patton, director of multicultural affairs; Adonijah Bakari, director of African American studies; and Jack Frisby, an associate professor of history.
Frisby has made a study of Forrest since he was a student in the 1980s and 90s, when Forrest was previously a subject of controversy.
"It appears there was no relationship between the university and Nathan Bedford Forrest until around 1938, when then-President Q.M. Smith apparently decided the university students should embody the characteristics that Forrest displayed during the war," Frisby said. "By 1945, President Smith had directed the PR department to begin using a Confederate horseman as our mascot.
"If you look at some of the university yearbooks and other sources, that image was used rather sparingly until sometime in the mid 1960s. That, of course, was at the height of the civil rights movement, when many Southern schools began to affiliate themselves with Southern imagery.
"At MTSU, there was a Nathan Bedford Forrest re-enactor who patrolled the fields and led parades. That was dropped in the late 60s, and was only used very sparingly in university publications and other university memorabilia. By the late 80s, there was a move to remove that image from the university altogether. That resulted in the removal of the plaque from the university center. It was done by a student-initiated movement to do that.
"As for Forrest Hall itself, it’s unclear why that was not included in these efforts. I can’t find any clear understanding why it wasn’t," he said. "But it has always been Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall since 1954, when it was built for $123,000."
Percy Ford, a member of the local African American community who retired from the U.S. Army after 22 years, has followed the recent controversy. What happened during the Civil War is history, and the present is more important, he said.
"I think that people should recognize not only the Southern heritage, but the U.S. Army heritage from the North," Ford said. "We’re in the South, I see no problem in recognizing people who fought in the Civil War from the South. In the North, they recognize generals like U.S. Grant.
"I don’t think it should be a big controversy," he said. "That was over 150 years ago. I think we should look forward, and move on. I think we should be worried about Iraq. We have soldiers dying there now. I don’t think we should be worried about what happened 150 years ago."
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