A petition started by our Local 17 members forced a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs to remove a portrait of a notorious Confederate general, KKK founder, and slave trader from his federal office in Washington, D.C.
David J. Thomas Sr., deputy executive director of VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, had on his federal office wall a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a well-known Confederate general who, during the Civil War, led the slaughter of hundreds of surrendering Union troops, most of them newly-freed slaves. He went on to become the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Our union’s Office of General Counsel sent a request for information to VA headquarters on Oct. 23, requesting detailed information about how the portrait ended up on Mr. Thomas’s office wall as well as all VA policies related to the use of government resources to honor Confederate Generals and KKK leaders.
We are also requesting the removal of a military weapon, a kukri knife, that is prominently featured behind Thomas’s desk.
“The prominent display of images of Confederate leaders in the workplace is never acceptable,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “When you consider that this VA official was showcasing artwork romanticizing Confederate soldiers with links to the KKK prominently in his office along with an intimidating military combat weapon, that’s nothing short of hostile.”
“At AFGE, we fight for all working people to have a place to work free of harassment and intimidation,” he added. “The actions of this official cross the line, and we’re calling on the VA to get to the bottom of what’s going on within their leadership at this facility.”
Jeremy Lannan, who heads our union's civil rights department as national vice president for women and fair practices, said this is about more than one portrait.
“This is about ensuring all employees can work free from discrimination and intimidation,” he said. “We have serious questions as to whether that’s possible under Mr. Thomas’ leadership.”
“Even though Mr. Thomas removed the offending portrait after hearing about the complaints and formal petition from our members, this issue is far from resolved,” Lannan added. “We remain concerned about whether Mr. Thomas is fit to lead this office, which is comprised of mostly African-American staff and primarily serves minority veterans.”
As reported in the Washington Post , at least three claims of racial discrimination have been filed against Thomas by his employees. As part of our request for information, AFGE is seeking details on all Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints involving Thomas and any suspensions or terminations of employees during Thomas’ tenure.