A deputy executive director with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is in hot water after hanging a portrait of the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard in his office, The Washington Post reported.
David J. Thomas Sr., a career civil servant who serves in the department’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, told the newspaper he had no idea the man in the portrait, noted Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, was the white supremacist group’s first figurehead and only thought he was a “a Southern general in the Civil War.”
“It was just a beautiful print that I had purchased, and I thought it was very nice,” Thomas said of the painting, which he kept in his basement before decorating his new, larger office at the VA’s administrative headquarters a few months ago.
“I don’t know what to do with this thing, except to destroy it,” he added.
The senior official said he took the portrait down after a Washington Post reporter explained Forrest’s affiliation with the hate group that was established after the Civil War in an effort to maintain power over emancipated Blacks.
While most of Thomas’ senior staff is African-American, several of his colleagues have accused him of racism and say the portrait is proof of his animus towards Blacks. One manager who reports to Thomas also disputed his claims about the portrait, saying the painting was displayed in his old office as well.
At least three employees have pending racial discrimination claims against Thomas, according to the newspaper.
“You don’t hire someone who puts a picture of the Klan in his office unless you’re [racist],” said John Rigby, an attorney representing two of the aforementioned employees.
In a statement, a VA spokesperson addressed the allegations and said the department strives to create a workplace that’s welcoming to all employees.
“[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 spokesperson said. “The matter is resolved.”
The VA chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees begged to differ, however, and drafted a petition this week demanding the portraits permanent removal.
“We employees denounce the display of this offensive picture and believe that appropriate action should be taken,” the petition says, describing Forrest as the KKK’s first grand wizard and the leader of an 1864 attack on Union troops, many of whom were Black.
As of Monday, the petition had about 75 signatures.
It is unclear how the portrait, which the manager says Thomas has been displaying since 2015 during the Obama administration, escaped previous outcry from African-American staff members.