Forrest Hall Info Dump: Getting Inside the President’s Head

Note: I know that Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) was Middle Tennessee State College during the 1950s, but for simplicity and ease of understanding I employ a blanket use of “MTSU” throughout. Also, apologies for the poor photo quality. All photos were quick snaps I took during my archival research and were intended for personal use only.

Forrest Hall and MTSU, Part Two

A couple of weeks ago, MTSU President Sidney McPhee convened the first meeting of the Forrest Hall Task Force, a committee chaired by Dr. Derek Frisby. This committee is tasked with evaluating whether or not MTSU should rename its building named for Civil War General and KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forest. The meeting was open to the public, although the only individuals allowed to speak were those on the committee. For a superb outline and interpretation of that meeting, stop here and read this blog post by Elizabeth Catte.

As I have argued before, in order to understand Forrest Hall, we must understand those who named the MTSU ROTC building as such. The issue at hand is, in part, who Forrest was, but more important is what Forrest represented in the 1950s. Forrest Hall is a question of memory and myth, not one of military history.

The goal of this blog post is to outline some points about the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Confederacy as understood by white Southerners in the 1950s, specifically top MTSU administrators. This post also serves as a historical information dump, not rigorous historical analysis. I have been in archives digging into MTSU’s Forrest history for weeks now (probably about 20 hours total this month), and this information needs to be shared.

Sketch of what would become Forrest Hall, MTSU Yearbook, 1954
Sketch of what would become Forrest Hall, MTSU Yearbook, 1954


How did MTSU administrators understand and deploy Forrest in 1954?

From MTSU Yearbook

1. Tennesseans in the 1950s understood that Forrest was a primary leader of the KKK.

Tennessee Blue Books from the mid-1950s openly referenced Forrest’s KKK past: “His postwar career was devoted to farming and railroading, but he apparently served for a time as head of the Ku Klux Klan.” That word “apparently” suggests to me that the Blue Book authors were a bit embarrassed of Forrest’s KKK associations, but were honest enough with Tennessee’s past to include it. Before World War II, his KKK associations were a point of celebration, and Forrest supporters only began to distance Forrest from his KKK leadership in the decades World War II, as evidenced by the decline in importance of Nathan Bedford Forrest Day as a legal holiday, to non-observance, to re-assignment as a day of observation.

Either way, as evidenced by 1950s Blue Books, the Tennessee government — of which MTSU was a part — officially recognized Forrest’s KKK leadership.

2. MTSU administrators spoke in coded racist language when referencing Forrest.

During the 1958 Forrest Hall dedication, Dean Keathley stated: “There was no searching for a name for the ROTC building — the name was always there, for the spirit of its namesake hovers over this campus.” Remember, Keathley was speaking to an all-white campus (except for service workers) actively resisting integration. MTSU Presidents Smith (1938-57) and Cope (1958-68) both rejected petitions from African-American students to enroll at MTSU throughout the 1950s. Note that in 1948, it was declared that one of the objectives of Tennessee state colleges, including MTSU, was to “offer general education for the area served. They are truly the ‘people’s colleges’.” Except for black people, I guess.

Returning to Keathley’s comments on Forrest’s “spirit,” African Americans in the 1950s South — and most likely, all Southerners in the 1950s — understood that “the spirit of Nathan Bedford Forrest” was coded language for oppressive racism, the KKK, and potentially carried the threat of racial violence. There’s usage of the term in 1960s Memphis to mean a place of heavy racial oppression, and it pops up in random bits of fiction every now and then to mean, basically, when white people commit violence upon African Americans. Search for it on Google Books; it’s there.

In addition, a 2011 blog post by Virginia Military Institute (VMI) alum Keydet76 refers to “the spirit of Nathan Bedford Forrest” as what “lives on in those—even today—who wish to inflate their importance by belittling those who they have contempt.” Keydet76 further wrote: “If Lee and Jackson were the Saints of the South, then Nathan Bedford Forrest was the Sinner…It was Forrest organization the Ku Klux Klan who imposed a reign of terror on the newly freed blacks and who actions set the stage for the imposition of the Jim Crow laws.  It was Forrest and his ilk that turned the Confederate Battle Flag into a symbol of hate and bigotry rather than a symbol of those who gave their upmost for a cause.” The relationship between Confederate heritage and VMI is very complex — much more so than Forrest and MTSU — and I would suggest giving Keydet76 a read.

3. MTSU President QM Smith publicly spoke many times on his “Americanism” approach to university administration, an approach very similar to the one forwarded by Nathan Bedford Forrest II at Lanier University, a failed Atlanta college sold to the Ku Klux Klan.

Forrest II (Nathan Bedford Forrest’s grandson) openly served as Grand Dragon of the second KKK, and as such became as Lanier University’s Secretary and Business Manager (and first in command) upon the KKK’s 1921 purchase. He told The New York Times upon his appointment: “Our institution will teach pure, 100% Americanism…while Lanier will be operated under the direction of the KKK, it should not be understood that it is open only to sons and daughters of members of that organization. It will be open to the sons and daughters of all real Americans who desire that their children shall receive instructions in the true history of their country in an institution where Americanism and the teaching of patriotism and loyalty to home and country are the predominant features.”

To Forrest II, a top leader in the KKK, “real Americans” were all white and “loyalty to home and country” means loyalty to the ideals of the Confederacy, most notably white supremacy. In the QM Smith Papers at the Gore Center at MTSU, you can find many speech transcripts given by QM Smith, some in his own handwriting. Several of these are on Americanism and contain the same coded language forwarded by Forrest II two decades earlier. It is pretty clear from this that Smith and Forrest were, at the very least, from similar schools of thought, and it is entirely possible that Smith emulated Forrest in his approach to university management.

1956 MTSU Yearbook
1956 MTSU Yearbook

4. MTSU yearbooks from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s are full of Confederate imagery, and some of it is clearly designed to convey the message of segregation and/or white supremacy. 

Addendum: Liz Catte wrote a very good blog post on the 1956 KKK cartoon. I suggest you read it if you’ve made it this far.

One of Forrest’s soldiers, clearly meant to represent Forrest himself, appeared in the yearbook often, most notably in 1956 when his cartoon likeness “narrated” the yearbook. In one of the images — the opening to the Student Organizations yearbook section — Forrest is pulling a KKK hood out of his satchel. There is absolutely no way to dismiss this image as anecdotal; this is white supremacy and violence, pure and simple, in black and white in MTSU’s primary student body publication.

There was only one image of the Forrest sports mascot in the 1964 yearbook, but it was placed on the same page as the photo of MTSU’s first African-American student, Olivia Woods. In fact, the image of the Forrest Raider is as close to Woods’ photo as the layout allowed. Dr. Frisby references both of these images in his article on Forrest Hall, but dismisses them both as exceptional, and specifically refers to the Woods-Raider page of the yearbook as “curious.”

1964 MTSU Yearbook
1964 MTSU Yearbook

What’s more curious is the aggressive portrait of The Raider (see above), or the photo of female students with Confederate underwear, or a group of students celebrating with Confederate flags around a bonfire. There are many other images from which to choose, but these effectively convey the attitude of the MTSU campus toward Forrest and the Confederacy. Yearbook staff often chose images of the Confederacy for prominent yearbook locations, such as the yearbook’s opening page or section headers, so they were sending a clear message here.

5. Even the Nathan Bedford Forrest Round Table — a group of military history and Civil War buffs — disbanded their club in 1978 because they recognized the toxicity of the Forrest name.

The Round Table organized in 1958 as a Civil War historical club and met regularly on the MTSU campus, primarily at Forrest Hall. Membership included local businessmen, local teachers, a variety of MTSU faculty (including history and ROTC), and MTSU administrators. These men never were outright racist in their language, yet I honestly find them to be a little odd in their re-enactment. Their correspondences were all in faux-military, Lost Cause speak, such as addressing the first group letter to “About twenty men who can’t remove the ring of the Confederate Yell from their ears nor the pungent smell of Southern lilacs from their nostrils.” But they seem strangely genuine in their objectives of entertainment, historical research, and development of Stones River Military Park, even though their work was heavily couched in Lost Cause rhetoric.

By the mid-1970s, attendance waned. In the final years, organizers recognized the Confederacy and Nathan Bedford Forrest were now firmly associated with white supremacy. Rather than engage this development, members instead disbanded in 1978 and firmly placed blame upon everyone else:

Our group is slowly dissolving because: We are afraid of guilt by association. Afraid, that is, of that wild-eyed lunatic element which is so caught up in the extreme view of civil rights that they see a hood on every Southerner and double-damn those who study the Civil War.

6. There is no doubt that Forrest Hall is named for Nathan Bedford Forrest of Civil War fame (and infamy).

Some chatter emerged during the 2006 movement to rename the building that the building was actually named for Forrest’s great-grandson (who died in World War II). The building is named for the Civil War general, as the MTSU 1954-55 Annual Report directly stated “This building…is named for General Nathan Bedford Forrest,” not to mention dozens of other implications and references to the namesake’s Civil War legacy.

MTSU President Sam Ingram's official portrait
MTSU President Sam Ingram’s official portrait

7. This doesn’t have anything to do with Forrest Hall specifically… I just wanted to include the photo of when MTSU President Sam Ingram proudly asserted his role as a President who removed Forrest imagery from the university. As I discussed in my post over at Sport in American History a few months back, MTSU President Sam Ingram removed the Nathan Bedford Forrest seal from the student union building in 1989. Today, portraits of every MTSU President hang on the second floor of Walker Library. Check out Sam Ingram’s. What’s that in the background? That’s right… the new university seal. Ingram clearly embraced removing the Forrest seal (and helping create a new one) as part his MTSU legacy, and it is a testament to him that he chose this specific background for his portrait. How awesome is that?


Concluding Thoughts

Alongside Liz Catte’s and my own previous articles, what do all these disjointed points tell us? First, it tells us that MTSU was a place where the Confederacy was heavily celebrated, both in terms of “heritage” and for the more nefarious, KKK-associated reasons decried by the Forrest Round Table group. Second, it tells us that QM Smith’s fascination with Nathan Bedford Forrest was firmly grounded in Forrest’s KKK legacy — not exclusively in Forrest’s military accomplishments as Smith claimed publicly. And finally, it tells us that Smith most likely named Forrest Hall as such because of both Forrest’s racist legacy and his military accomplishments.

If anyone wants to call me out for being politically correct, thin-skinned, or revisionist, then I’ll ask they read that blog post by Keydet76 [Note: I have a lot of respect for VMI. Two of my uncles went there, and I nearly attended for undergraduate study], who had some great thoughts on the legacy of the Confederacy:

Many controversies have been waged across the South over the display of the Confederate Flag—be it the Battle Flag or National Colors.  In simplest terms it was the white south that allowed the Confederate Flag to be appropriated by purveyors of ignorance, intolerance, and bigotry.  It was the white south that stood silently and passively as these purveyors of the hate lynched and inflicted terror and violence on African-Americans attempting to exercise their god given and constitutional rights.

The Confederate Flag has lost its symbolic relationship with those who fought honorably and valiantly for what they believe was a just cause.  The Confederate Flag belongs in a museum or in reenactments of the Civil War.  Its display, regardless of intent, symbolizes to many Americans, hate and bigotry.  While it may be part of many Southerners heritage it still does not change the fact that it is a powerful symbol of rebellion and hate.

Please, for the love of MTSU and its reputation, change the name of Forrest Hall and be rid of this hate and bigotry for good.

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