Today, AAHGS Nashville hosted a tour at the Nashville Zoo to learn about the African American history on site. We greatly appreciate the time spent with us by the Historic Site Manager, Tori Mason, and her team. It was educational and moving. If you aren’t familiar with the history of the Grassmere Farm and the evolution to the Zoo, you will definitely want to keep reading.
Grassmere House and the Croft Sisters
The Zoo has a unique origin story. The Grassmere Farm, the site on which the Zoo was established, used to be owned by the Croft sisters, Margaret and Elise. The home was built in 1810 by their 2nd great-grandfather, Michael C. Dunn, making Margaret and Elise the 5th generation to live in the home. In the 1960s, facing the possibility of losing the home and the farm, the sisters accepted an offer for the home and lands to belong to the Nashville Children’s Museum (now the Adventure Science Center) upon their passing. There was one caveat — the property was to be used to educate the public about animals and the environment, for the sisters LOVED and cared deeply about animals and nature. Thus, that is what it became; first, Grassmere Wildlife Park in 1990, and then later in the 1990s, the Zoo was invited to relocate there. The Zoo is the perfect testament to the desires of the sisters and the Zoo does a great job with education and preservation! You can read more history on the Zoo’s website.
The enslaved population at Grassmere
As to be expected given the time period, the Grassmere Home, as well as all of the buildings on the property, was built with the labor of enslaved individuals. Currently, estimates are that about 30-35 individuals were enslaved by the families on average. In addition to building the property, those enslaved by the families worked the crops and raised livestock. Unfortunately, only a few of their names are known – Ben, Henderson, Louie, and Flora were some names identified through family records. Though many of their names are not known, they were, absolutely, a fundamental part of the Grassmere Farm workings and operations.
Particularly moving from our visit today, was learning about the enslaved cemetery found on the property in 1989. The cemetery, originally located to the immediate right as you enter the Zoo through the admission gate, was relocated near the home itself in 2014. The cemetery contains the remains of 20 individuals and while, again, their names are not known, the DNA and archeological studies that were done have given insight into the community. The individuals were buried there between the 1820s-1850s and were buried in clothing and wooden coffins (rather than just shrouds and placed directly into the ground). As noted in a September 18, 2014, USA Today article, “six individuals had arthritis. One man walked with a limp, a woman endured fractured vertebrae in her lower spine”, and Tori informed us today that the man with gout was only 19 years old and tall (about 6 feet, 2 inches) and that one woman was 22 weeks pregnant at the time of her death. Amazing to be able to know these details. Called the “Unknown 20”, the cemetery dedication marker reads “Here lie 20 unknown individuals who lived here and worked on the property. Reinterred with reverence at this site on the 12th day of June 2014.”
The Morton Family
After emancipation, African Americans continued to be fundamental to the operation and ongoing running of the Grassmere property – particularly, the Morton Family. The patriarch, Frank Morton, started at Grassmere in 1919 and Elise Croft credits him with teaching her everything she knew about running a farm. You can hear her discuss him in a 1964 audio clip in the Tennessee Electronic Virtual Archives collection of the Tennessee State Library & Archives (check out the whole Grassmere Collection archive on the site).
Frank worked and lived at Grassmere until his death in 1962. His nine children were all raised there – including son Albert who continued to work there after his father’s passing, and daughters Maude, Vera, and Rosie. The cabin behind the home, which is an actual slave cabin that was moved there from elsewhere on the property, was where Frank and his family lived. The whole Morton family was critical to the farm and as Tori stated today, “This property would not have existed without the Morton family.”
What’s Next for the Zoo?
Within the next year or so, the Zoo plans to add onto telling the stories of the Morton Family. There is an empty half of the slave cabin that they plan to open as an exhibit so visitors can learn even more. The Zoo team has oral history from some of Frank’s granddaughters who have recounted their memories of visiting him in the cabin. Family traditions, such as painting the ceiling, window frames, and door frames “haint blue” are evident – there is so much more of the story to tell.
All, in all, our time there was invaluable. It was informative and it is good to see the Zoo embrace and share the whole range of the history on site – and making purposeful strides to be inclusive of the African American contributions. A day of learning indeed.
Want to learn even more? Read through this 2017 Middle Tennessee State University thesis by Kate Sproul.
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