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. 



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.



Juneteenth Commemoration at The Hermitage: June 23

boab-tree-merlene-pozziAAHGS Nashville invites you to join us June 232018, from 1- 4 pm at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage to learn strategies and tips for researching your family history.  This session will be conducted in partnership with The Hermitage’s Juneteenth Commemoration.

New to family history research? Come out and learn how to get jump-started! Well-seasoned in genealogy? Come and bring friends along who may not know the ins-and-outs!

After a 1-hour presentation, we will have one-on-one consultation sessions to provide individualized advice.

The event is free and open to the public. We look forward to seeing you there!

Image: Boab Tree Art Print by Merlene Pozzi

Learn How to Research African-American Family History

AAHGS Nashville invites you to join us February 32018, from 1- 4 pm at the Nashville Public Library to learn strategies and tips for researching your family history. New to family history research? Come out and learn how to get jump-started! Well-seasoned in genealogy? Come and bring friends along who may not know the ins-and-outs!

After a 1-hour presentation, we will have one-on-one consultation sessions to provide individualized advice.

The afternoon is sponsored by Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage as part of their Black History Month outreach events.

The event is free and open to the public – tickets can be obtained by registering below.  We look forward to seeing you there!

June 18th: Exploring Your African American Genealogy

On Sunday, June 18th, AAHGS Nashville is participating in a series of events hosted at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage as part of their Juneteenth Celebrations.

Join us at 2 pm as we present a 1-hour genealogy workshop, followed by individual consultations from 3-5pm.  If you have already started your genealogy research, come with as much prepared information as you have as that will help us offer you more specific help and advice.

Use the button below to register.  We look forward to seeing you there!


A Day of Discovery

Yesterday, the LDS Family History Center in Franklin, TN hosted a wonderful day of genealogy presentations as part of their Family Discovery Day Event!

Franklin Family History Center

The day began with a welcome and introduction by Murray Johns, a member of the Franklin TN stake presidency.  After his introduction, the day was divided into 3 segments, each offering multiple tracks of genealogy & family history instruction and education.

Murray Johns welcomes participants

Example topics included – understanding why Mormons do genealogy research, using DNA for understanding ethnic origins, leveraging deed books & non-population schedules, getting started on and using Family Search Family Tree, breaking brick walls & military research for African American genealogy, writing your personal and family history story, using cemetery and grave records for research, and more!

a sampling of the day’s activities

Representatives from local chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, Daughters of the American Revolution, Williamson County African American Heritage Society, Middle Tennessee Genealogical Society, and the Friends of Tennessee State Library & Archives, were also available to provide information.  AAHGS Nashville also represented and shared information about our organization too.

Our chapter president, Chajuan, begins the process of transferring her family tree into FamilySearch Family Tree
AAHGS member Taneya with Tina Jones of the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County

The Family History Center plans to conduct another Family Discovery Day next year, so keep an eye out for future announcements.  We also include regional happenings on our Calendar, so be sure to check that list from time to time for upcoming events.

Many thanks to the Franklin Family History Center for a wonderful day of learning and education!

Researching African-American Family History & Genealogy Workshop


AAHGS Nashville invites you to join us February 11th, 2017 from 1-4pm at the Nashville Public Library to learn strategies and tips for researching your family history. 

After a 1-hour presentation we will have one-on-one consultation sessions to provide individualized advice. 

The afternoon is sponsored by Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage as part of their Black History Month outreach events.  

The event is free and open to the public – tickets can be obtained by registering below.  We look forward to seeing you there!