A senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs included a portrait of the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard in his office decor, only taking down the framed print after employees started signing a petition for its removal.
> David J. Thomas Sr. is deputy executive director of VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, which certifies veteran-owned businesses seeking government contracts. His senior staff is mostly African American.
> Thomas said he took down the painting Monday after a Washington Post reporter explained that its subject, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was a Confederate general and slave trader who became the KKK’s first figurehead in 1868. He said he was unaware of Forrest’s affiliation with the hate group, which formed after the Civil War to maintain white control over newly freed blacks through violence and intimidation.
The Post noted that a simple Google search was enough to discover Forrest’s role in the Civil War and its aftermath — but Thomas insisted he knew nothing about the general’s ties to white supremacy.
> “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.
However, other VA employees disputed Thomas’ account, saying the portrait was displayed in his previous office as early as 2015, and when Thomas changed offices, he had the VA’s maintenance staff place an outlet high on the wall so he could light the display.
> The painting, by artist Don Stivers, shows Forrest wearing a gray military uniform and astride a horse. It is titled “No Surrender” and depicts the general fleeing a snowy Tennessee battlefield in 1862.
> Thomas’s staff includes 14 managers, nine of whom are black.
> Racial tensions have flared between Thomas and several of his employees, at least three of whom have pending claims of racial discrimination against him.
After it was realized that Forrest was a founding member of the KKK did employees take action by way of the petition, which they intend to present to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.
> The local VA chapter of American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees at VA’s central offices, drew up the petition this week demanding the portrait’s removal.
> “We employees denounce the display of this offensive picture and believe appropriate action should be taken,” the petition says, describing Forrest as not only the KKK’s first grand wizard but also the commander of an 1864 massacre of Union troops, most of them black, who surrendered after the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee.
> Douglas Massey, president of AFGE’s Local 17, said he gathered 75 signatures on Monday in the headquarters cafeteria and plans to continue until he has 200, even though Thomas told The Post he took down the portrait. Massey said he found Thomas’s explanation offensive and “hard to believe.”