A senior official at the Veterans Affairs Department hung a painting of the first Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Confederate general in his office but removed it after some employees circulated a petition to force him to take it down.
David Thomas, a deputy director in the VA office that verifies small businesses for government contracts, never directly received complaints from his coworkers about the painting, a spokesman for the federal agency said Wednesday.
The portrait depicts Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Army general turned inaugural KKK leader, posing on the back of a horse. The words “No Surrender” and the date 1862 are written on a title card below the painting.
Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
"Mr. Thomas immediately took down the print in question – a work by noted historical artist Don Stivers – and the matter is resolved,” said VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour.
The incident comes amid a protracted national debate over whether Confederate symbols should be displayed on government property, including monuments in local parks. Earlier this year the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization sued the city of Memphis, Tennessee for removing a statue of Forrest from a park.
During the Civil War, Forrest led the brutal killings of mostly African American Union Soldiers at the Fort Pillow Massacre in 1864. He also is known for using his stature in the Confederate army to help create and expand the KKK as a secretive organization. In 1869, he called for the group to be disbanded and even later gave a noted speech on racial reconciliation, but local chapters continued to exist.
A petition coordinated by the labor union representing VA was sent to members this week. It denounced the display of the painting in a government building and called for “appropriate action to be taken.”
“Hopefully this will one day be a thing of the past but until that happens we’ll be here to fight it,” said Cheston McGuire, press secretary of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The Washington Post first reported the portrait had been taken down.
ABC News confirmed the report and obtained photos of Thomas' office while the portrait was still hanging. The person who took the photos does not want to be identified because of fear of retaliation.
Doug Massey, president of AFGE's Local 17, said Thomas has been at the center of other racial discrimination complaints. At least three African American employees have pending cases alleging misconduct in Thomas’ office, and he is accused of discrimination and retaliation by at least two senior employees, according to court filings. The VA said it does not comment on personnel issues without that person's consent.
One of those accusers is retired Air Force Colonel Michelle Gardner-Ince. She told ABC News that Thomas mentioned to her that his wife didn't like the portrait but that he kept it anyway.
At the time, Gardner-Ince said she didn’t know Forrest was the man in the picture and didn’t ask Thomas about it. But she was appalled after learning more about it from the VA employees who started the petition.
“It is an environment of fear,” Gardner said. “With the behavior and fear that’s prevalent in the office, [the painting] also serves as intimidation.”
Thomas is a career employee and was not appointed by any administration.