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 https://digital.mtsu.edu/digital/collection/p15838coll17 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. https://www.facebook.com/mtolivechps/.
We thank all of our presenters and attendees today!
Many thanks to John F. Baker Jr. for his presentation yesterday, “Finding the Stories Behind the Names: John F. Baker, Jr. Makes It Plain“. John shared the important and impactful work he’s done to research the Washington families of Wessyngton Plantation.
John shared details from his research and the methods for how he captured the stories and insights in his book, Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation. If you do not have his book, it is a must-read! John’s done some incredible work and his story is worth reading.
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.
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.
Ever since we all began to splinter into isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic, just about every first Saturday members and friends of AAHGS Nashville have been gathering around our computer screens for our monthly meeting, looking into our collective past.
The August meeting focused on destruction of African American neighborhoods to make way for interstate highway systems, and similar projects given “right of eminent domain.” AAHGS Nashville member Deborah Washington was so moved by the discussion, she dug into her family archives to find photographs and recall memories of what it was like growing up in her South Nashville neighborhood. What she misses most is the bond shared with neighbors. “All the neighbors on the block knew each other,” she said. “We were like one, big, happy family.” The following is her story.
by Deborah Washington
About 12 years after the photo above was taken, in February of 1968, my family moved from 1004 11th Avenue South. Our house and my aunt’s house on Grand Avenue were the only 2 houses still standing in the neighborhood. Because of urban renewal, we had to move from our home. We did not want to move. We were happy there. Some during that time and a lot of people today do not understand this. They do not understand that you do not need material things to be happy. The neighborhood consisted of mostly rentals. There were a few people who owned their home. Those houses were the nicer houses in the neighborhood. I lived on the portion of 11th Avenue that was in between Grand Avenue and Archer Street.
Our house consisted of three rooms and a kitchen. The rooms were called the “front room”, the “middle room” and the “back room”. All 3 of those rooms were bedrooms. On the section of 11th Avenue that I lived, there was no indoor plumbing in any of the houses. We had a hydrant outside for water and we had an outhouse. Inside the house we used chamber pots (the proper name but, we called them something else). We had a water bucket with a dipper that we would fill and use for drinking water. We had tin wash tubs, foot tubs and wash pans. Heat was provided by a coal stove and a fireplace. I can remember in the kitchen having a coal stove for cooking. It had four areas for the pots and pans. I also remember having an actual ice box. Blocks of ice were bought to put in it to keep food cold. Fortunately, in my earlier years, we obtained an electric stove and an electric refrigerator which we continued to call an ice box. Mom would wash clothes in the wash tub with a washing board. Someone gave her an old washing machine with a wringer that you had to operate manually. She used it, but would still wash some things using the wash tub and washing board.
There were a lot of grocery stores in the neighborhood. We did our main grocery shopping at Cut-Rate Bi-Rite on the corner of Overton Street and South Street and at H.G. Hills grocery store located on 16th Avenue South and Villa Place. There was also a Bi-Rite on the corner of 12th Avenue and Hawkins called Rays Bi-Rite (I think that is the name). There was a grocery store on the corner of 12th Ave So and Grand Avenue that we called Pat O’Connor. Not sure if that was the actual name of the store, but it was the name of the owner. There was a grocery store on the corner of 12th Avenue South and Edgehill. There was also a grocery store on the corner of 12th Avenue South and Horton. There were smaller stores that we went to that were not as big as the grocery stores. Hicks Grocery Store was on South Street where 11th Avenue ended, but 11th Avenue did continue about a 4th of a block down. Mr. Billy Martin’s grocery store located on the corner of 10th Avenue South and Overton Street. Mr. Billy Martin would let families get food on account. My grandmother would send me to his store with a list and no money. He would gather the items, bag them and send me on my way. A newer store, Service Drive-In was built when I was around 11 or 12. There were probably other stores, but these are the ones I knew about. After the urban renewal, until recently, there were no grocery stores in the neighborhood. With the development of the Gulch, there are now some stores nearby in the Gulch area.
There were two pharmacies that we went to. The pharmacies were named after the pharmacist. One was Clemmon’s Pharmacy located on 12th Avenue South in front of Carter-Lawrence School and Neely’s Pharmacy located on the corner of 12th and Hawkins across from the Ray’s Bi-Rite store. I liked going to Neely’s Pharmacy because of the big rack of comic books. I loved comic books and bought all my comic books at this pharmacy. We loved to go to Mr. Clemmon’s Pharmacy because he had a soda fountain and he served ice cream and other soda fountain treats. He also had a wide selection of candy in a display case.
There were some retail stores. Schulman’s on the corner of 8th Avenue South and South Street, sold clothing, shoes and other items. Mandell’s on 12th Avenue South, sold clothing and other items. Wynn’s was a hardware store located on the corner of 12th Avenue South and Grand Avenue. We purchased our wash and foot tubs, and wash pans there; our water buckets and dippers, our stove pipes; chamber pots when we could afford one, etc.
The schools in the neighborhood were Carter-Lawrence Elementary School and Rose Park Jr. High School. We went to Cameron High School which was in a different part of south Nashville. Prior to Rose Park being built, children living in the Edgehill area went to Cameron starting in grade 7. After Rose Park was built, the children in the Edgehill area went to Cameron in the 10th grade. At one time children on my part of South Nashville had to walk to Cameron High School when they entered the 7th grade. By the time I went to Cameron, buses were provided.
Other business in the area were Deford Bailey’s shoeshine shop, Mr. Carruthers’ shoe repair shop, a pool hall, a laundry mat (we called it a wishy washer). There were also beer joints on 12th Avenue South and South Street. There were also several beauty salons. I remember a barber shop on the corner of 12th Avenue South and Grand. There were probably others, but that is the one I remember.
Many churches were in the area and some are still there. My church, Greater Bethel AME on South Street, New Hope on Hawkins Street, Kayne Avenue on 12th Avenue South (not original location). There are many other churches that I have not named.
Patton Brothers Funeral home is still located in its same location on South Street.
A rock quarry existed where Rose Park is now. In September, every night when the State Fair was going on, people would gather on the street at the fence of the quarry and watch the fireworks that were set off every night. The quarry was scary. I was still a young child when it was filled in and there were tales that mothers would throw their babies in the quarry. I think we were told this to keep us from acting bad. I was glad when the quarry was filled.
On the corner of 12th Avenue South and Edgehill, there was a park called Edgehill Park. When we had recess in school, the teachers would take us across the street to play in the park. It was lots of fun. When they filled in the quarry to make Rose Park, they took the land Edgehill Park was on and built the senior citizen high rise.
Jersey Farms milk company was located on South Street. There was always a school trip to Jersey Farms and after the tour of the building, we were given a carton of chocolate milk.
Where Did They Go?
As people moved, where they went depended on whether they owned their home. Renters were mainly moved to one of the housing projects. Most of my friends’ families were moved to JC Napier and University Court. A few went to Settle Court (the official name was something else). My best friend and her family moved to Cumberland View projects. My mother and aunt did not want to leave our part of south Nashville, so we waited, hoping to get into Edgehill projects. My family did get into Edgehill projects, but my aunt’s family had to go to JC Napier projects. When they built the newer projects on Edgehill next to the senior citizens homes, my aunt moved from JC Napier into them. A lot of people who owned their homes bought homes further out 10th Ave, 11th Ave, 12th Avenue South. They bought homes on Lawrence Ave, Douglas Ave, Gilmore Ave, Kirkwood, Waldkirch, Halcyon, etc. I know of one family that bought a house in Northwest Nashville on Drakes Branch Road.
Even though we did not want to move, the houses needed to be torn down. The rental houses were in bad shape. The landlords did not maintain the properties. In addition, in 1968 in the city of Nashville in my neighborhood, many of the houses had no indoor plumbing. When we moved, we were told that when the new houses were built, the people that had been relocated would get first choice of the houses. In 1972, we moved from Edgehill Projects to 1017 Southside Court. My mother and aunt were given the opportunity to be among the first to choose a house to purchase. The tree that was in the front yard of our old house was now in the backyard of our new house. They got as close as they could to the spot that the old house was located.
The Neighborhood Today
Regentrification has gone through and changed the neighborhood again. My mother moved from 1017 Southside Court in 2016 after living there for 46 years. Many of the houses on the street had been sold to developers and were being torn down and replaced with expensive housing. Two residences were put on the lot where my mother’s house once stood. The area from 8th Avenue South to 12th Avenue South and from Archer Street to South Street is almost complete. There are only a few of the original houses from the urban renewal left. The houses were replaced by housing $700,000 and up. What was once a neighborhood with affordable housing is now a neighborhood for the rich.
I can tell a lot more about life in the neighborhood but, I am keeping this short. I would like to mention that all the kids in the neighborhood played together in the street. We had fun. When we talk today, we reminisce about the good old days.
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
Dr. Learotha Williams, the history professor at Tennessee State University known for his North Nashville Heritage Project, has taken the preservation venture to a new level.
He launched a new website, May 11, 2020, that offers museum-quality exhibits and serves as a vehicle to share his digital collections with researchers, educators, and enthusiasts alike.
In turn, users of the site can submit their own images and inspiring stories about North Nashville history and culture. “Think of memories you carry with you to Greenwood Cemetery,” said Williams.
“It’s my hope that the work we’re doing will lead to a deep appreciation and study of African American history in Middle Tennessee.”
Williams collaborated with Simmons University graduate student Alexandra Howard, a Nashville native, to develop the site.
Howard contacted Williams earlier this year, when she was looking to collaborate with a local scholar or institution on a digital project showcasing North Nashville. The project would cap her master’s degree in Library Science and Cultural Heritage Informatics. She had been mentored in some of black Nashville’s history as a child at Hull Jackson Montessori elementary school, so she understood the value and need for preservation.
The pair spent most of last spring working together, using an open-source, web-publishing platform developed at George Mason University, called Omeka. The program is used to teach curation and is used by many small museums and historical societies.
The inaugural exhibit, entitled “Books, Bibles, Blues, and Business: Legacy of North Nashville,” is drawn from the six different collections, each a distinct category of items.
Under “Business,” a striking, two-dimensional representation of Dr. Josie Wells (b. 1878 – d. 1921), shows an image of her face superimposed over a picture of the historic Morris Memorial Building. “At the turn of the century, she was the only black woman who had an office downtown,” said Williams. Accompanying text reads, in part: “Wells was the first female graduate of Meharry Medical College and the first woman to teach at Meharry. She was the first practicing female doctor in Nashville, specializing in diseases of women and children. She died on March 20, 1921 at only 42 years old.”
Equally, if not more intriguing in the Oral History collection, a second, two-dimensional representation: a drawing of the Nashville Slave Market transposed over an image of Public Square. Accompanying text reads, in part: “The slave trade was a booming industry in Nashville. Enslaved people were sold at the Davidson County Courthouse.”
This latest iteration of the North Nashville Heritage Project accelerates its goal, said Williams, which is to collect and archive. “The key thing is to amplify voices that have been overlooked, or marginalized.”
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.
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.
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!
On Saturday, January 18th, we held our first meeting of the year. We were fortunate to have Dr. Angela Sutton present and showcase a variety of emotionally moving monuments around the world created to memorialize the experiences of enslaved populations. Dr. Sutton shared these projects as a context for the potential that lies before the city of Nashville as plans are considered for a monument/memorial at Ft. Negley.
I Am Queen Mary (2018) in Denmark – the statue is a monument to Mary Thomas, a woman who was enslaved in St. Croix and coordinated a slave revolt in which 50 plantations were burned
Each of these monuments is worth learning about and we encourage you to research them and their significance. Dr. Sutton’s talk and review were inspiring as fodder for the ultimate question: How could we help the world to understand the experience of Nashville’s enslaved and their descendants?
We thank Dr. Sutton for her presentation and let us all use this as an opportunity to contribute our voices for what could be at Ft. Negley.
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.
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!
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?