Meeting Summary: Saving Historic Cemeteries

Cemeteries, graveyards and memorials are visual reminders of our public memory of the enslaved. They exist because our ancestors desired to memorialize those buried there.

Unfortunately, many historic African American cemeteries have been forgotten; some of them paved over, others taken over by developers. It’s up to us to save the ones that remain. By visiting and honoring the sacred places of our ancestors, who were enslaved and freed to survive mostly on their own, we give humanity and dignity to their memory.

This morning, our AAHGS Nashville Chapter hosted a moving and insightful set of presentations and discussions about saving historic African American cemeteries. We were honored to hear presentations from Zada Law, Leigh Ann Gardner, Mike Taliento, and Phyliss Smith.

Zada Law shared about the Places, Perspectives project to document African American community building in Tennessee. The project locates, researches, maps, and tells the stories of churches, schools and cemeteries in post-emancipation rural communities in Tennessee. Zada described work to document and geographically map African American cemeteries in 4 sample counties across the state – Greene, Maury, Fayette, and Hardeman counties. You can explore the current Places, Perspectives site at and a formal site with more in-depth cemetery information will launch this summer on the website of the Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University.

Leigh Ann Gardner has been researching cemeteries established through fraternal organizations and benevolent societies for 12 years. She’s documented her findings in her new book, To Care for the Sick and Bury the Dead (available through Vanderbilt University Press). In her presentation, Leigh Ann described the importance of lodges for the African American community, sharing an excerpt from her book about a Knights of Pythias Thanksgiving celebration in 1909. While these organizations thrived between 1865 and 1930, through the cemeteries they established, their legacy continues. Mount Ararat, one of Nashville’s oldest African American cemeteries, is but one example – having been established by a benevolent society.

Our meeting closed with a presentation Mike Taliento & Phyliss Smith -both are members of the Mount Olive Cemetery Preservation Society and shared the progress made over the past 18 years to preserve and document the Mount Olive Cemetery. Mike shard the mission of the society, history about the cemetery, described the extensive community involvement and support, and showed many pictures documenting the restoration and preservation efforts. Phyliss gave many details about the work she leads to research the lives of those buried in the cemetery and ensuring their stories are told. Another addition to the remarkable work that’s happening, the society is having a ceremony on Saturday, June 18th for the official unveiling of their U.S. Colored Troops Monument.

We thank all of our presenters and attendees today!

Our society invites you to join our announcements list to receive updates on upcoming meetings and events.

Volunteer Indexing Project of TN Convict Leasing Records

Today we held the first meeting of the year and had an important presentation from our guest speaker, Dr. Camille Westmont. Dr. Westmont is a historical archaeology postdoctoral fellow at Sewanee: The University of the South and shared information about a project she is working on – a volunteer indexing & transcription project, to be more precise, of records created by the Lone Rock Stockade, which was the largest convict stockade in Tennessee.

Dr. Westmont is the coordinator of an online volunteer transcription project for records from the Lone Rock Stockade (which was in Grundy County, Tennessee) spanning 1870-1896. Using the From the Page platform, microfilm images of the ledger records are posted online, and anyone can volunteer to help with the transcription of the information that appears on the ledger pages.

Example ledger page

Why is this indexing project important? Because, for decades, the state (as did many other states after emancipation), unfairly targeted and imprisoned African Americans, then leased them out as forced labor to private businesses. The conditions in which they lived and the ways in which they were treated were horrendous. These records are important because they provide an opportunity for us to KNOW and LEARN these individuals’ names and begin to do the work to TELL THEIR STORIES. And possibly, to reconnect families (via descendants) that have been systematically ripped apart by this practice.

The records contain details such as names, ages, race, the county in which they were convicted, the crime for which they were convicted, sometimes there are physical descriptions such as height/weight, dates of discharge or death, and more. To date, 330 ledger pages have been transcribed by about 30 volunteers. But, much more work remains to be done.

We are looking into hosting a transcribe-a-thon to help with the project. If you are interested in participating, please email us. Meanwhile, if you would like to explore the records – you can sign up at

Meeting Recap: Mapping Tennessee’s African American Neighborhoods

Our chapter had another informative and educational meeting Sat., Aug. 1st! Our third quarterly meeting of the year was held via Zoom, as will all remaining meetings of the year, due to COVID19.

Featured guest Zachary Keith, an archivist and map curator at the Tennessee State Library & Archives, shared a website he’s been working on to show – through geographic mapping overlays – the destruction of African American neighborhoods of Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, and Knoxville caused by urban renewal in the 1950s-60s .

The maps are striking.  In these two, for example, you can clearly see how construction of the I-40 Interstate cut through the North Nashville neighborhood around Jefferson Street.

Zachary noted that during this time, 1,549 people were relocated, 94% of them (1,450) black individuals.  Along with each map on the website, he provides historical pictures and researched narratives.

The site states that those who lost homes and businesses were more likely to be poor and African American. Such urban renewal projects seriously disrupted, and in some cases destroyed their communities, making it more difficult to accumulate property and wealth. The effects of these projects persist today, despite the progress achieved by the Civil Rights Movement in the mitigation of Jim Crow Laws – and all of this is so clearly obvious through these maps.

Discussion in the chatbox during the meeting provided additional insight:

    • two attendees lived through this deconstruction period near Jefferson Street and shared their family experiences.
    • we discussed the destruction of businesses and schools
    • a member shared that his family land was taken due to eminent domain for 1/4 of what would become Cumberland View Housing Projects aka Dodge City in the 1960’s
    • another member shared a link to a project at Johns Hopkins University that documents examples of structural racism across the country at 

The online mapping project is worth checking out. You can visit it at

If you have personal experiences you can share, you can reach out to Mr. Keith at


Recap: Preserving Your Family History

Yesterday, AAHGS Nashville partnered with Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage for a day of education to help individuals with preserving their family histories. The event was held at Tulip Grove Mansion, a Greek-revival home built between 1834-1836 by Andrew Jackson Donelson, the nephew of the President’s wife (Rachel Donelson) and adopted son and heir of President & Mrs. Jackson.

Tulip Grove

The Jackson family owned and enslaved many individuals on this property, thus, it is highly important that activities such as the one we had yesterday, are held to help ensure that we promote the ongoing research and documentation of individuals of African ancestry. In doing so, we help ensure their stories are not forgotten.

The day started with a presentation by yours truly, during which I shared information on the many options available for documenting family history research through building family trees.  Whether you document your family history on paper forms, using computer-based genealogy software, or web-based programs (such as collaborative family trees), it is important that the family stories & details are documented.  The presentation slides are available online.

Marsha Mullin,  Vice President of Collections & Research & Chief Curator at The Hermitage, gave a highly educational talk about the enslaved population there.  During President Jackson’s time at the residence, he enslaved hundreds of individuals with most of the enslaved having been born on site. When he passed in 1845, the property and the enslaved were passed on to his son Andrew Jr.  Over the subsequent years, many of the enslaved were sent to other parts of the country, such as Kentucky, to work at an ironworks that Andrew Jr. purchased, or were deeded to Andrew Jr.’s son, Samuel, down in Louisiana.

Marsha described the records that have been gathered to help tell the story of the Hermitage’s enslaved and the work being done to identify descendant families.  For example, this family documented in 1870 in Morehouse Parish, Louisiana, shows the household of Thornton Nichols (spelling varies). The household includes a 100-year-old male, who is believed to be named Polidore.

Household of Thornton Nichols, 1870 Morehouse Parish, Lousiana.

The names of Thornton, Polidore (age 100), Sally, and Augustine all match a known enslaved family unit that was deeded by Andrew Jackson Jr. to his son Samuel Jackson in Louisiana. Samuel Jackson Jr. left Louisiana to join the Civil War and died in 1861.  Further research and investigation are needed on Thornton and his family.

The 3rd session of the day was presented by genealogist Sue Forshee Cooper, who shared tips and strategies for the genealogy research process. Sue provided attendees with useful websites to use, approaches for courthouse research, and guidance for how to think outside the box when seeking records.

Additionally, photograph scanning and document preservation experts were on site as well to further aid in the family history process.   Many thanks to all the attendees who came out to spend the day with us!

Upcoming events at the Hermitage for Black History Month include tours focusing on the lives of the enslaved and a commemoration service on February 29th. 



Surname Saturday: Bell

In the genealogy blogging community, there are a series of daily writing prompts that are shared to help with ideas for blogging. Today is Saturday, and one of the prompts is “Surname Saturday.” So, for this post, we took inspiration from the blogging prompt and are writing a short blurb about Bell families in middle-Tennessee.

The idea to do this came about earlier today, while I was engaged in a conversation with fellow AAHGS board member, Natalie Bell. We spoke about the numerous Bell families here in the middle Tennessee area. Undoubtedly, many can likely trace their lineages back to affiliation with Montgomery Bell (1769-1855) who owned a large iron furnace in Dickson County and enslaved hundreds of individuals during his lifetime.

Montgomery Bell’s listing in the 1850 US Federal Slave Schedule Census shows that he owned more than 250 individuals in that year alone.  I did a quick search of the 1870 US Census, the first census conducted after emancipation,  and found more than 200 black and mulatto people with the surname “Bell.” It would be interesting to conduct a surname and/or DNA study of African American Bell families to more fully explore their possible connections and interrelationships.

Natalie can trace her Bell family connections back to Charles Bell and Lucy Stringfellow Bell of Cheatham County. Charles died in 1927 and Lucy in 1944. Both are buried in Belltown Cemetery – located in a community that was founded by those formerly enslaved by Montgomery Bell.

The 1910 US Census shows Charles and Lucy to have been married for 6 years, with 3 children – John L., Mary, and Charles H. Charles was 36 years old and Lucy was 23; this was Charles’ 2nd marriage. Unfortunately, Natalie does not have any additional information about Charles’ background and family and it remains an area of research.

1870 US Census record for Charles & Lucy Bell. Civil District 11, Cheatham County, Tennessee, United States –

What surnames are you researching in the middle Tennessee area and what roadblocks have you encountered? Part of our AAHGS Nashville mission is to help individuals explore their family histories – let us know how we can aid in that endeavor!


Great Thanksgiving Listen – Record a Family Member

This week, many of us will be around friends and family over the Thanksgiving holiday.  It’s the perfect time to grab a family member or two and ask them to share a few of their stories!

Each year at Thanksgiving, StoryCorps – a non-profit organization whose mission is to encourage people to share their stories, encourages story sharing through their Great Thanksgiving Listen project.

Visit the website for details on how to use the app, suggestions for interview questions, and more.  Stories can be private, but if you choose, it can be shared online with other users and archived at the Library of Congress.

I’ve personally used the app to record a few family stories – including this one of my mom talking about  her grandmother’s yearly visits.

It’s only 2 minutes in length but catches a great glimpse of my mom’s childhood experiences with her grandmother.

What stories will you record over the Thanksgiving holiday?

Slave & Free People of Color Database from the Nashville Metro Archives

Will books often contain many details that can help break the “brick wall” often experienced when researching enslaved individuals prior to emancipation.  To aid Davidson County researchers, the Nashville Metro Archives now offers an online database of names of enslaved individuals found in Davidson County records.

The Slave and Free People of Color Database provides access to thousands of names of enslaved individuals found in Davidson County will books.  Additional data points may include:

      • the type of record (e.g., will, bill of sale, estate inventory, settlement)
      • the slaveholder’s name
      • the slaveholder’s residence
      • enslaved individual’s age and sex
      • family relationships
      • whom the enslaved individual was transferred to
      • details about the entry, such as date, will book, and page numbers.

The database includes more than 14,000 entries are between 1783 – 1865. Visit to view & search the records!

African Americans of Belle Meade Plantation

Brigette Jones speaking to the AAHGS Nashville audience

Our AAHGS Nashville meeting today featured a rousing presentation by Brigette Jones, Director of African American Studies for the Belle Meade Plantation Museum.

1844 runaway slave ad from William G. Harding

In her talk, Ms. Jones not only gave us an accounting of the lives of the enslaved population at the plantation but also drew stark parallels between the situations faced by those individuals in the past and the situations faced by African Americans throughout the course of time since slavery and on up to present day.

Ms. Jones shared for us the stories of some of the known enslaved individuals and their contributions to the plantation, including:

    • Ben – who ran away in 1818
    • Ned – Ben’s replacement, who also ran away in 1818
    • Susana McGavock Carter – a house servant for the Harding family
    • Bob Green – head hostler (in charge of the horses)

Susanna McGavock Carter

It was a fascinating talk and if you’d like to learn more, you will definitely want to attend the Journey to Jubilee tour and get an in-depth perspective of what life was like those enslaved at Belle Meade. Thank you, Ms. Jones, for sharing their stories with us today and challenging us to reflect on the difficult intergenerational effects of slavery.


Relevant resources for today’s talk include:


Visit to the Nashville Zoo

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

grassmere home
Tori Mason begins the tour of the Grassmere Home

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 

shute 1860 slave census
excerpt from the 1860 slave census schedules – some slaves owned by William D. Shute

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.

Dedication marker for the enslaved cemetery

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

Frank Morton & son Albert, 1957

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).

Morton family cabin

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?

Inside Frank’s cabin

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.



Seventeen Men: A Fort Negley Exhibit

This year, AAHGS Nashville will be holding our chapter meetings & workshops at Fort Negley, a fortification constructed in Nashville during the Civil War and the largest inland fort built in the United States. Fort Negley was constructed using the labor of more than 2700 black laborers and soldiers.  To prepare for our meetings, our chapter president and I visited the meeting space and I was particularly taken with the current exhibit.

Seventeen Men exhibit at Ft. Negley

In the space is a stunning exhibit of 17 life-sized color pencil drawings by artist, illustrator, and genealogist, Shayne Davidson. Shayne learned about a tiny (2 inches tall) photo album that had been owned by William A. Prickitt, who had been captain of Company G of the 25th United States Colored Troop regiment.

Cover of William A. Prickett’s album

There were 113 men in the unit and Prickett’s album had pictures of 17 of them.  The book is now in the collections of the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Shayne wanted to know more so researched each man in the book to create biographical profiles of them and then created these stunning drawings.

Of the 17 men, 3 had connections to Tennessee; Corporal Solomon Frister settled here in Nashville, Private John Walls settled near Memphis, and Private James Tall was born in Murfreesboro.

Shayne Davidson’s drawing of Corporal Solomon Frister

Frister is buried in Mt. Ararat Cemetery and our AAHGS Nashville friend, Kathy Lauder, featured him in one of the biographical profiles from her Greenwood Cemetery project, a project to document those interred at Nashville’s historic African-American cemetery.

Kathy Lauder bio of Corporal Solomon Frister

The lives of these seventeen men are certainly worth knowing more about.

We hope that you can join us for our March 2nd meeting (ft. the Fort Negley Descendants Project) and not only learn about the work being done to tell the stories of those that worked at Ft. Negley, but also to see this exhibit.

Shayne’s book is available at Amazon, and you can also visit her Facebook page to learn more.