According to David J. Thomas Sr., a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ central office, he only hung a portrait of the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, Nathan Bedford Forrest, because it was “beautiful.” And despite knowing that Forrest was a Southern general, Thomas claims he was unaware of the man’s sordid—and well-documented—racist history.
In fact, Thomas said he didn’t learn about Forrest’s fuller history until recently, when a Washington Post reporter in his office pointed out that Forrest had also been a slave trader and a prominent KKK figurehead.
“It was just a beautiful print that I had purchased, and I thought it was very nice,” Thomas said. He said he knew of Forrest only “as a Southern general in the Civil War” and kept the portrait in his basement before decorating a new and larger office at VA’s administrative headquarters a few months ago.
The painting, titled “No Surrender” shows Forrest riding a white horse across a snow-covered Tennessee battlefield. Because why be subtle about how beautiful whiteness is?
According to the paper, Thomas, the deputy executive director of VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, said he took the painting down on Monday.
But some of Thomas’ senior staff—most of whom are black—say the portrait has been up for a “long time.” And not only had his employees circulated a petition regarding the painting, which they intended to pass on to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, but three of them have “pending claims of racial discrimination against him,” writes the Post.
As the Post reports:
A manager who reports to Thomas disputed part of his account, saying the Forrest portrait was displayed in Thomas’s previous office also, starting in 2015. When he moved offices in recent months, Thomas directed VA’s maintenance staff to install an electrical outlet high on the wall so he could illuminate the portrait, said the manager, Michelle Gardner-Ince.
Gardner-Ince, who has an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case against Thomas pending, says Thomas spoke with her about the portrait years ago:
“He said, ‘My wife told me I shouldn’t put this picture up,’ ” pointing to the Forrest portrait,” Gardner-Ince recalled, “ ‘but I said, I don’t care; I like it.’ ”
“It’s been there for a long time,” she said.
Thomas—who is a career public servant, and not a Donald Trump appointee—says he never received any complaints about the portrait, and now that he has taken down the portrait, a Veteran’s Affairs spokesman told the Post the matter is now considered resolved.
“You know how many people I’ve had in and out of my office?” Thomas told the Post. “They say, ‘That’s a nice print.’”