In Depth

US official forced to remove portrait of KKK leader from office

The painting depicts the first grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest riding a horse

A senior US official has removed a portrait of the first Ku Klux Klan grand wizard from his office in Washington, D.C., after coworkers signed a petition to have it taken down. 

David J Thomas Sr, deputy executive director of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization at the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), told the Washington Post he was not aware the subject in the portrait, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was a leader of the white supremacist organisation. 

“It was just a beautiful print that I had purchased, and I thought it was very nice,” Thomas told the Post, saying he only knew of Forrest as a Southern general in the Civil War. He had kept the portrait in his home basement before bringing it into his office.

The painting, titled No Surrender, depicts Forrest, clad in a white military uniform, riding a horse. It is by artist Don Stivers, who specialised in military subject pieces. 

It was a union steward attending a meeting in Thomas's office who recognised Forrest in the painting.

Forrest was the commander of troops who carried out the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre, where more than 300 African-American Union soldiers were killed. In 1865, the founders of the KKK asked Forrest to serve as its the first grand wizard. 

According to the Post, Thomas's staff include nine African-American employees, three of which have filed racial discrimination charges against him.  

The local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents VA employees, created the petition earlier this week. It gathered 75 signatures, and Douglas Massey, the president of the union, “plans to continue until he has 200”, according to the Post. 

In an email to the Post, VA spokesman Curt Cashour wrote that the VA “strives to create a workplace that is comfortable and welcoming to all employees,” and that Thomas “received no complaints from his fellow employees... Thomas immediately took down the print in question.”

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