Our AAHGS Nashville meeting today featured a rousing presentation by Brigette Jones, Director of African American Studies for the Belle Meade Plantation Museum.
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)
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:
Fisk Slave Narratives – project started in 1929 collected by Fisk University’s Charles S. Johnson and Ophelia Settles Egypt
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The lives of these seventeen men are certainly worth knowing more about.
AAHGS Nashville invites you to join us June 23, 2018, 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 withThe 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!
AAHGS Nashville invites you to join us February 3, 2018, 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.
Dr. Mattie Elizabeth Howard Coleman was a prominent figure in Nashville’s African American history. A 1906 graduate of Meharry Medical College’s School of Dentistry, Dr. Coleman was a medical, religious, and community service pioneer.
This weekend, Saturday, October 14th, Capers Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church will honor Dr. Coleman with a wreath laying at her internment site in Greenwood Cemetery. The church is celebrating the Centennial Celebration of the Women’s Missionary Council and invites members of the public to attend. More details are available here.
This past weekend, we held our October monthly meeting and learned about the freedmen community, called “Cemetery,” in Rutherford County. Established soon after the Civil War by former enslaved African Americans, the story of the Cemetery community is being actively preserved, shared, and disseminated through the efforts of descendants, historians, genealogists, and community members.
Our guest speaker was Dr. George C. Smith. Dr. Smith has been thoroughly engaged in these efforts and it was truly educational to here his discussion of the community’s significance. There are only a few remaining freedmen-established communities in the state of Tennessee so it is important for their stories to indeed be told.
An archive of materials related to Cemetery is available online via Middle Tennessee State’s Public History Program; visit the site to learn more. The African American Heritage Society of Rutherford County is very heavily engaged in helping to capture the story of the Cemetery community to follow them on Facebook or visit their website to stay abreast of project updates. You can also hear a presentation by community member Leonora Washington.