David J. Thomas Sr., a deputy executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), is being accused of racism for displaying a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, in his Washington D.C. office, according to the Washington Post.
Thomas said he thought Forrest was only “a southern general in the Civil War.” The senior official was oblivious to the history of the first leader of the hate group.
“It was just a beautiful print that I had purchased, and I thought it was very nice,” Thomas said.
He took the painting down on Monday after a reporter informed him of Forrest’s history. “I don’t know what to do with this thing,” Thomas told The Post, “except to destroy it.”
Thomas said he only had the portrait up for months in his new office. Michelle Gardner-Ince, a staff manager, disputed that claim, saying the same painting was on the wall in a previous office in 2015. She also alleged that Thomas instructed maintenance staff to put an electrical outlet on the wall to allow him to light up the portrait.
“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.’ ”
Nine members of Thomas’ senior staff are African-American, and three have pending racial discrimination charges against him.
John Rigby, a lawyer representing two of them, said, “You don’t hire someone who puts a picture of the Klan in his office unless you’re [racially insensitive].”
Curt Cashour, a VA spokesman, said in an email that the agency “strives to create a workplace that is comfortable and welcoming to all employees.” He addressed the Forrest portrait controversy saying, “[Thomas] received no complaints from his fellow employees and only learned about these concerns from The Washington Post … Thomas immediately took down the print in question. … The matter is resolved.”