Sam Stockard, The Murfreesboro Post, March 28, 2017
Rep. Mike Sparks is encouraging the Legislature to honor the state’s “rich and vast history” with a resolution recognizing Sampson Keeble, the first African-American elected to the state House, and embattled Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
“I just feel like as a society we’re vilifying certain folks in history. We don’t highlight their struggles and, really, the things they’ve done,” said Sparks, a Smyrna Republican.
Busts of both men sit in the State Capitol about 20 steps apart from each other.
But Sparks contends the accomplishments of Keeble are largely overlooked as part of the state’s history, even though he became the first black man elected to the House of Representatives in 1872 during Reconstruction after being born into slavery 40 years earlier.
He also believes Forrest, criticized as a slave trader responsible for a slaughter at Fort Pillow and elected as the first Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, is misunderstood.
“I’ve often said there’s a story of redemption with Forrest,” Sparks said.
House Joint Resolution 92, which Sparks said he hopes to present this week, notes that Keeble established the Rock City Barber Shop and was active in the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Co., in addition to serving in the Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association. A member of the Davidson County Republican Party, he was one of 13 African Americans to serve in the General Assembly during Reconstruction shortly after the Civil War and sought passage of three bills: one to allow African Americans to operate downtown Nashville businesses; another to protect black laborers and their wages; and a third to obtain state funds for the Tennessee Manual Labor University.
After serving in the Legislature, Keeble became a Davidson County magistrate. He was honored in 2010 by having his bust placed in the Capitol.
Forrest’s story is more widely known, and the resolution notes he is seen by some as a Civil War “hero” for his military genius and prowess as a cavalry leader who rose from the enlisted ranks to general, but is “reviled by others as the father of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The resolution says he made a fortune as a slave trader, planter and speculator, rising from humble beginnings in Middle Tennessee near Chapel Hill.
Forrest isn’t considered the KKK founder but was elected its grand wizard, though “historians all agree that he eventually left the group and renounced its racist actions,” the resolution states.
At the end of his life, he began attending church and advocated for civil rights for black Americans while living in Memphis, according to a book by Shane Kastler, “Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption.” Sparks points out Forrest also spoke in favor of reconciliation between the white and black races during a speech to the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association at the Memphis fairgrounds in July 1875.
“I just don’t think things should be vilified when there is some good in all of us,” Sparks said.
His resolution calls for the Legislature to recognize the state’s rich history and encourage people to learn history from “every perspective, the mournful, the tragic, and the uplifting, to truly appreciate the people, the culture, and the legacy of Tennessee.”