Search This Blog

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Kidnapping & Re-enslavement of Freedmen in Middle Tennessee

During the Civil War in Middle Tennessee - and likely many other places throughout the American South, people who had escaped from slavery were recaptured and sold back into bondage. 


On September 20, 1862, an article appeared in the Nashville Daily Union newspaper. It described how eight Black people had been kidnapped, placed in the slave pen of Henry H. Haynes, and then taken South to be sold back into slavery. 


According to the article, four people who had been impressed to work on the fortifications in Nashville - such as Fort Negley - had been taken “without authority to the slave pen” of Henry H. Haynes and “run off South by some one.” Four other people who had also been impressed by the Federal authorities were “found in the pen, where they had been taken, it seems without authority.” This was evidently a relatively common occurrence - and underscores the vulnerability of people who were seeking freedom from enslavement during the Civil War. These eight people had claimed their freedom, been impressed by the US Army in Nashville, and were then kidnapped and placed back into slavery.

References to this practice appear in both the records of the Provost Marshall (the military police in Nashville) as well as a book about the Army of the Cumberland (Annals of the Army of the Cumberland).

For example, according to the Annals of the Army of the Cumberland, large numbers of enslaved people emancipated themselves from slavery and fled to the Federal camps where they found work. Initially, their enslavers did not try to regain them:

One of the marked results of the war has been the escape from Rebel masters of large numbers of slaves. Flocking to our camps, where they are universally known as contrabands, they have been made useful in a multitude of ways by the Army of the Cumberland. As cooks, as waiters, as teamsters, as laborers, in the hospitals, in warehouses, in stables, on the fortifications, on steamers and railways, they have been constantly employed with the advantage to themselves and the government. ... At first no particular caution seemed to be exercised to prevent their escape or any considerable efforts put forth for their recovery. Their whilom [former] masters were apparently content to let them go or stay as they pleased, congratulating themselves that it was simply so much pork and cornbread saved when they abandoned the lean larder of a southern plantation for the ample store of a Yankee camp. Those left behind were enough for all their present needs, and too many to be decently fed and clothed from the scanty crops and scantier stocks of the Southern Confederacy.

However, beginning around January 1862, the attitudes toward these new Freedmen began to change. Instead, slave holders began to move the people they held in bondage to places more securely within the Confederate-held states; they also began to try to recapture people who had gained their freedom and fled to Nashville. Rewards were paid for their return:

With the last New Year [Jan 1862], however, another policy seems to have been inaugurated, either by the civil authorities at Richmond or by the military  leaders in camp. Whether it was that the number of fugitives had become alarmingly large, or that the influence of the Emancipation policy was feared, whether it was the dread of an armed insurrection or a general stampede to the Federal lines, or whether it was all of these combined, that caused the changes of policy, is not easy, and not necessary, to determine here. Suffice it to say that measures were at this time taken to remove into the interior and southward these slaves in Tennessee and other border states that could be reached, and to recover from the Federal lines as much as possible of those who had escaped thither.  The spies and scouts of the secret service soon scented this new game, and were on the alert. It was found that considerable rewards have been offered in Murfreesboro and other places in the Southern Confederacy for the delivery of negroes within the rebel army lines. Emissaries were found in Nashville, engaged in trapping and carrying away by force such likely negroes as they could lay their hands upon– at the same time acting as spies and furnishing the rebels with important information.

For example, this letter, signed by the Acting Adjutant of the Fortifications in Nashville describes a meeting between himself and H. H. Haynes "Negro dealer [in] Nashville" in July 1862 in which Haynes asked the Adjutant if he "was disposed to engage in the business [of stealing people] he would take any number [the Adjutant] would furnish, that he would come at any appointed time of the night & hour and receive them [the kidnapped people] outside of [the Federal lines], that he would pay [the Adjutant] $50 per head and after [Haynes] had sold or disposed of [the kidnapped people] he would divide the profits with [the Adjutant]."

Letter in the Federal Provost Marshall’s evidence file against Dr. Hudson

A Federal spy was sent to Franklin, Tennessee to meet with men who were well known as “extensive negro dealers.” Specifically mentioned was a man named "J. Prior Smith." I suspect perhaps this was S. [Sidney] Prior Smith who owned a large farm, in the 8th District of Williamson County and whose brother Preston was an officer in the Confederate Army. 

Sidney Prior Smith
Smith lived in the Moran Road area of Hillsboro Road, north of Franklin.

According to the Annals of the Army of the Cumberland:

Measures were at once taken for the detection and punishment of those engaged in this nefarious traffic. A suitable person was dispatched to Franklin, Tennessee, where resided several men formerly well known as extensive negro dealers, for the purpose of obtaining reliable information of the parties in the business and the means by which it was carried on. With one of these men. - J. Prior Smith who had one million dollars of Southern money for investment in negroes - this agent became very intimate and finally engaged to purchase for him men, women, and children. Four likely children from 1 to 8 and 10 years of age he was to be paid $10 per pound; and for every man and woman that he would get out of Nashville and vicinity, he was to be liberally rewarded. Smith also gave him letters of introduction to prominent citizens of Nashville, both of them entered cheerfully into the scheme and suggested various means of carrying on the business.

The involvement of Prior Smith was further described by a Federal spy 
Henry Newcomer. in a statement in the evidence file against another conspirator, Dr. J. R. Hudson: "He has entered into an engagement with me to furnish [Prior Smith] with the negroes ... He is to get a pass from Dr. Swift to send outside of the lines fo milk fo the hospitals and in that way we are to get the negroes out."


Letter in the Federal Provost Marshall’s evidence file against Dr. Hudson

The referenced Dr. Hudson was the son in law of John Napier, one of the owners of the Napier Iron Works in Dickson County.  He used this connection to further his efforts in kidnapping people back into slavery. His engagement was described in the Annals of the Army of the Cumberland:

One of them - Dr. J R [John Rolfe] Hudson - was particularly interested, and for months busied himself in kidnapping young boys and running them South. He tampered with the officers of the Engineer Corps in charge of the fortifications then being constructed., offering them half the profits, or $500 each, for every man they would permit him to steal out of their squad of laborers. He would procure passes for himself and servants to go out to his farm, and the servants would never come back. He would send them out with his wood wagons, and when once beyond the lines it would be passed on to their destination and sold. His speculations, however, were interfered with materially by the Army Police; he was indefatigable, in the business, and only ceased trapping Negroes when trapped himself.
In February 1863, the Provost Marshall began to gather evidence against Dr. Hudson through the use of the Federal spy, Henry Newcomer: "He [Dr. Hudson] proposed the trapping of boys from 14 to 15 years & smaller and told me [Newcomer] if I would engage with him & turn them over to him he could get at least one thousand dollars each, & he would give me $500 for each boy big enough to plow and men could be sold from $1,500 to $2,000 for each."

Later that year the US Provost Marshall, based on this evidence, sent Dr. Hudson and his wife “South via Vicksburg”.

The actual kidnapping of the newly emancipated people was also described in the records.  In the Annals, it was described how a man named Norris hired a group of men to help him re-enslave Freedmen for a minister who previously enslaved them and wanted them back:

Accordingly he takes with him five men, some of them armed, – and in the middle of the night makes a descent upon their cabin, and has them in his hands before they've barely know what is the matter. Four of the men he chains by locking their legs together with trace-chains, and fastens them together by twos. In an adjoining cabin are four other Negroes, ... he concludes he may as well take them along too, and they are surprised and secured in the same way. Resistance is in vain: they struggle as best they can, howling, begging, and imploring not to be taken down south. They might as well appeal to a stone. He knows no mercy, and shows none. Once in the wagon they are driven off as rapidly as his four horses can draw them. By twisting and turning from one road to another, he evades the Federal forces, and in about eight days reaches his destination, Huntsville, Alabama, when the Negroes are turned over to their ministerial master and Norris received his reward.

These troubling accounts make clear the precarious state that newly Freedmen found themselves in: despite having claimed their freedom and made their way safely inside Federal lines they could find themselves captured yet again and sold or taken back into bondage yet again.  It also clearly illustrates how desperately many Southerners were to cling to the vile institution of human slavery - even as it was crumbling around them.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

City of Franklin's Law "For the Regulation of Slaves" - 1823

On September 9, 1823, the Mayor and Aldermen of Franklin enacted a new law "for the regulation of slaves" within the city limits. 

 In the 1820 Federal Census, the population of Williamson County was 20,640. Of those people, 7,047 were enslaved African-Americans - about 34% of the entire population. Only 75 free People of Color lived in the County. The Mayor of Franklin at the time of its new law regulating enslaved people was Dr. Edward P. Breathitt. He was born in Henry County VA and married Mary Pauline Eaton in Franklin in 1815. By 1820 his family was enslaving 9 other people. In 1823, when he was Franklin's mayor, he was 33 years old. When he died in 1837, his headstone described that he was, "a learned and skillful physician, an affectionate husband and father… a kind and indulgent master."

The new law stipulated that a "suitable person" (presumably a white man) should be hired to serve as watchman for two-month terms. The watchman's job was, "to watch and patrol the different streets, lanes, alleys and squares, to examine kitchens and other suspected places of resort for negro assemblies within the corporation." This was to be done every night. Of those nights,  "at least three nights in each week" the watchman was to start at 9 pm and patrol for at least five hours. On the other nights, it was the watchman's discretion. The law required that on Sunday he was to "take particular care that negroes are not permitted to pass with anything for sale without written permission" from the white people who controlled them. If the watchman did "apprehend" an enslaved person trying to sell things without permission, they were to punish the enslaved person "with any number of stripes [whipping lashes] not exceeding thirty-nine." At 9 pm at night, the watchman was to "sound the trumpet" to "disperse all collections of negroes."

The law also targeted white people in an attempt to prevent them from encouraging or influencing the enslaved population. For example, they were prohibited from attempting to, "buy, sell, trade, barter or borrow" anything of value from an enslaved person without the permission of their enslaver or the person who controlled them.   Additionally, free people were prohibited from selling to enslaved people (without permission of the enslaver), "any spirituous liquors, beer, cider, ale, porter, wine or any drink capable of producing intoxication."  Also, free people were prohibited from permitting, "any slave or slaves disorderly to assemble at his or their house or place of residence." Anyone who violated these provisions would be fined $5 for "each and every offense." 

There was also a provision of the law that stipulated that if a "negro slave" settled in the City of Franklin "under pretense of hiring his or her time" or if they occupied "any house or by any other means reside" in the City of Franklin the watchman was to "take them up" and by order of any justice of the peace they would be committed to prison. There was an exception to this rule for Black people who were "in the actual service of some free or white inhabitant of Franklin." If they were not so excepted, they were to remain in the jail until "the owner" paid a fine of $8 plus "prison charges and other costs of commitment." If any white inhabitant of Franklin attempted to enter into an agreement "contrary to the true intent and meaning of this act" they would be fined e$20 for each offense.

The law also applied to free people of color ("any free negro or mulatto") and targeted prayer services and worship. It required that if they entertained "any slave or slaves" in their home "during the Sabbath or in the night, between sunset and sunrise" they could be fined $5 "for each and every offense." 

Below is the full text of Franklin's 1823 law. In 1831, Nat Turner led one of the largest slave rebellions in America in Virginia.  Three years later, the City of Franklin adopted a revised Slave Watchman bill. The population of Williamson County's enslaved population continued to grow. By 1860, the last census before the Civil War, slightly more than half of the people living here were held in bondage. Dozens of men were employed as overseers on the larger farms and plantations. The entire system was designed to control, subdue, and defeat thousands of residents for no reason other than the color of their skin.

An Act
By-Laws of the Town of Franklin

An act for the regulation of slaves within the corporation of the town of Franklin and for other purposes.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the mayor and aldermen of the corporation of the town of Franklin, That there shall be elected once in every two months a suitable person to serve this corporation as watchman for the term of two months ensuing the time of his appointment who shall be allowed and paid at the expiration of his term of service by the board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Section 2. Be it enacted, That it shall be the duty of the watchman to watch and patrol the different streets, lanes, alleys and squares, to examine kitchens and other suspected places of resort for negro assemblies within the corporation, at least three nights in each week, and five hours in each night after nine o’clock and other nights at his discretion. Sunday he is to take particular care that negroes are not permitted to pass with anything for sale without written permission from their owner, overseer or other person having the control and management of such negro specifying what they have for sale. To apprehend and punish with any number of stripes not exceeding thirty-nine any slave, who shall hereafter offer anything or commodity, for sale without written permission as aforesaid. To disperse all collections of negroes on Sundays or other days or times with or without passes, to sound the trumpet at the hour of nine each night and to take an oath before some justice of the peace for the county of Williamson, faithfully to perform the several duties required of him by this act.

Section 3. Be it enacted, That no free man, trader or other free person whomsoever, shall within the corporation buy, sell, trade, barter or borrow any commodities or things whatsoever, with, to or from, any slave or servant without the written consent of the master, mistress or other person having the control and management of such slave or servant, and if any such free man trader or other free person as aforesaid shall within this corporation, buy, sell, trade, barter or borrow any commodities or things whatsoever, without the consent aforesaid, he, she or they so offending shall forfeit and pay the sum of five dollars for each and every offense to be recovered in the name and for the use of this corporation before any jurisdiction having cognizance thereof.

Section 4
. Be it enacted, That if any free person or persons shall sell within this corporation, any spirituous liquors, beer, cider, ale, porter, wine or any drink capable of producing intoxication, to any slave or slaves, without a permit in writing from the owner or other person having management of such slave or slaves, or for the proper use of such slave or slaves, either with or without such permit, knowing the same to be for his or her use as aforesaid, or shall permit any slave or slaves disorderly to assemble at his or their house or place of residence, every person so offending shall be fined in a sum not less than five, nor more than twenty dollars, to be recovered before any jurisdiction having cognizance thereof.

Section 5. Be it enacted, That if any negro or slave shall settle within the limits of this corporation under pretense of hiring his or her time or shall occupy any house or by any other means reside therein unless in the actual service of some free or white inhabitant of this corporation every such negro slave shall by the watchman be taken up and by order of some justice of the peace be committed to prison, there to remain until the owner of such negro or slave shall pay to the treasurer of this corporation the sum of eight dollars together with prison charges and other costs of commitment.

Section 6. Be it enacted, That if any inhabitant of this corporation under pretense of hiring or by any collusive agreement with the owner of any slave or with the agent of continuance within this corporation of any such slave or slaves except in his or her actual service, contrary to the true intent and meaning of this act every person or persons shall forfeit and pay the sum of twenty dollars for each offense, to be recovered before any jurisdiction having cognizance thereof, in the name and for the use of this corporation, with costs.

Section 7. Be it enacted, That if any free negro or mulatto shall entertain any slave or slaves in his, her or their house or residence during the Sabbath or in the night, between sunset and sunrise, he, she, or they so offending shall forfeit and pay the sum of five dollars for each and every offense to be recovered before any jurisdiction having cognizance thereof.

Passed 9th September 1823

E. Breathitt, Mayor

E. Cameron, Recorder

This Act was published in The Independent Gazette on October 17, 1823. Many thanks to County Historian Rick Warwick for a copy.

Friday, August 28, 2020

August 1963 - The Civil Rights Movement in Williamson County, TN

 On today's date (August 28) in 1968, 250,000 people participated in the March on Washington and listened to Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.



That event was the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement that summer and Dr. King predicted that it would "go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." And it had an impact right here in Williamson County, Tennessee. At the time, African Americans made up about 1/3 of the County's 25,000 residents.

A few days before the March, the Williamson County Committee of Christian Men (WCCCM) presented a petition to the County Court (predecessor to today's County Commission) requesting action on six areas in which they wanted an "extension" of rights for the Black community. Their request focused on six areas:
  1. The desegregation of the seven County-run whites-only high schools and the one high school for Black students (Natchez High School)
  2. Employment of Black residents by the City and County governments
  3. Jury service for Black residents
  4. Improved opportunities for employment in local factories
  5. Equal opportunity in public housing
  6. Service in all public business (i.e., no longer being denied equal service by restaurants, stores, etc)
To address these issues, the County Court approved the formation of a 12-person "bi-racial committee" of Franklin and Williamson County residents.  Under the plan, the County Judge (i.e., County Mayor) Jim Warren and Franklin Mayor Asa Jewell were each to appoint three white and three Black members of the committee.  The WCCCM's petition read in part, "we have come not to pressure but to join hands in this movement."

The Nashville Banner, August 28, 1963

This was not the first time the WCCCM had made such appeals to community leaders. Two years earlier, in August 1961, seven years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the WCCCM had filed a formal request of the Franklin Special School Board to desegregate the schools in the City for elementary and middle school students. They had also asked at that time for greater representation on jury duty and in leadership positions in city and county government. 

That fall of 1961, Franklin Special School District desegregated its schools using a "grade a year" voluntary plan - starting with first grade. This meant that Black families had to volunteer to send their six-year-olds to all-white schools. Two families sent daughters to the all-white Franklin Elementary School that year. The desegregation plan did not apply to Williamson County schools or to the high schools in Franklin.





It wasn't until the fall of 1967 that the Williamson County School Board desegregated the County schools.  The formerly all-Black Natchez High School briefly became an "annex" to Franklin High School. No attempt was made by the County to archive or save the trophies or artifacts important to Natchez High School, which had a thriving football team, marching band, and other extracurricular programs important to the Black community. Following the desegregation of public schools, several private schools formed in the area in reaction to this change.

The spring of that first year of desegregation, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  Four months later, the Williamson County Court adopted the current version of the County Seal depicting the Confederate Flag - you can read more about the context of these events in my blog post here.

Friday, August 21, 2020

August of 1863: A Time of "Great Revolution" in Nashville

 In August 1863, Nashville and much of Middle Tennessee - including Williamson County - were under Federal Occupation during the Civil War. The Bureau of the US Colored Troops were actively enlisting thousands of Black men into their ranks in Nashville. That month, 76 Black men from Williamson County enlisted - primarily into the 12th and 13th US Colored Troop regiments.  

On August 21, 1863 the New  York Times newspaper published a column from Nashville about the condition of the city. The reporter, identified as C.L.B., wrote about the "contraband" - the people fleeing from slavery - who were settling in Nashville. He remarked on their thirst for education. Additionally, he wrote about the use of Black labor on the fortifications, such as Fort Negley, and the disparate pay they were offered compared to the white laborers. His column described how the men were being enlisted into the USCT and the recognition by the Army that, "The Negro will fight." And lastly, he discussed the changing attitudes by many in the Army towards these soldiers and slavery in general. I wanted to quote the entire piece because it provides wonderfully rich details about Nashville in the midst of the War, and the changing attitudes of the day.


The City - Street - Contrabands - 

Army Feeling Toward Them.

Nashville August 1863

Nashville must have been a quiet, shady, respectable Southern City once, with a number of very handsome residences embowered in trees, or surrounded with neat gardens. It is prettily situated on the hills by the Cumberland; its public buildings, far more pretentious than the town, are very handsome and imposing, and a view from the Capitol over the hills and valleys of Tennessee, is beautiful. But at present the city is nothing but a garrison town. Everything is appropriated for the soldiers. From the windows of elegant private residences may be seen protruding the slouch hats and cigars of our officers: Guard patrol the verandas, orderlies stand before the gateways, soldiers fill up the deserted warehouses, even the churches are turned into hospitals, and the huge unfinished Hotel, said to have cost $300,000 (whose owner offered his whole property worth $5 million for the use of the Rebel government) is now crowded to the very top as barracks. Barricades still remain in some of the streets, a witness of the struggle which was expected. Soldiers are quartered in the City Hall and in the Capitol; and through the principal streets there is at all hours of the day and night an incessant rumble and tramp of army wagons, cavalry, led horses, marching Infantry, scouts, orderlies, suttlers wagons, troops of mules, officers and soldiers, and artillery, apparently without name or end.

Nashville General Hospital
No. 15, Division 1
May 9, 1865
Library Photograph Collection. 

From the Capitol, can be seen all over the country, on every hill and in the valleys, the tents of our camps.

Fortifications, earthworks and forts are going up on every side, to protect this the great garrison town of the frontier. The Capitol itself is guarded with artillery and a stockade. This is a spacious and cool building, ornamented with exquisite native marble, and built of the beautiful shaded limestone of Tennessee. Here is going on a great deal of the military and civil business of this department.

Here come all the citizens and people from the country who want passes, or who desire to take the oath of Allegiance; here Governor Johnson is carrying on his multifarious affairs; here the officers of the military government are transacting their appropriate business, and hear the courts marshalls meet.

The interior shows a most lively and motley throng at any hour of the day.

A number of the wealthy citizens of Nashville have entirely abandoned the city, others who are Secessionists have remained in the utmost seclusion and poverty. Mrs. Polk, I understood, still occupied her house - the Tomb of the ex-president guarding the place from disturbance. Union people are fast coming in and filling the houses and places of business, so that Nashville will resume the character it had before the war fairly broke out, of a loyal and national City.

The condition of the town, however does no credit to loyal officials. The streets even surpass those of New York in accumulated filth, dirt and garbage, and under the tropical sun, steam with odious exhalations.

Some General Butler is anxiously called for by all who are obliged to endure the squares or streets of Nashville. Another special want is of a decent hotel. Coming from the Galt House in Louisville, perhaps the best-kept house in the whole country, the contrast is forcible. I was recommended to the Sewanee House as “the only one where clean sheets are certain to be given!” That was its only recommendation. Otherwise the traveler finds bad cookery, a table like that of sixpenny restaurants, dirt, vermin, incivility, and disorder - all for $2.50 per day. The other hotels are said to be worse. If only some enterprising person would set up here a first-class hotel, he might make his fortune in three years! The travel is immense.

The Tennessean
Nashville, Tennessee
07 Jan 1846, Wed  •  Page 4

The contrabands.

One of the most pleasing sites in Nashville are the contrabands; a respectable orderly well-mannered folk, who do their work faithfully and make no disturbance. They seem prone to work less briskly than our white laborers, but more steadily. The officer overseeing some large squads at work on the fortifications of the city, assured me that they are accomplished quite as much as any white laborers. The saving and pay from the lower wages of the negroes over white labor, amounts I am assured by high authority, to $1,000 a day to the Department of the Cumberland.

It is a remarkable fact that along with the occupation of the City by Union forces the negroes at once begin to open schools for themselves. I met companies of neatly dressed, bright little black children going regularly to school. A bookseller says that he sold more spelling books in a short time then he has done for years in Nashville. The Negroes are already organized into pioneers and laborers in Rosencrans’ Army, and will be shortly, in two regiments of infantry or cavalry as more come in. Every day the pathetic little bands of refugees, wearily working toward Liberty are brought within the lines from Georgia or Alabama.   

The slaveholding families are anxiously considering the subject of “help” now - whether they are to be exposed to the eternally changing households of our Northern families, or whether they can keep their servants a long time under wages. So far as I have conversed with them, there does not seem to be as much vexation at the loss of their slaves as might be expected. Those who have lands, hope that the loss of the laborers will be more than made up by the increased price of land under the new immigration which they confidently expect.

And then, even if with no higher principle, all have bowed themselves to a great Revolution, which they see to be inevitable.

The feeling of the army toward the Negroes, I think, has reached a sound, healthy condition - that is, it is mostly indifference, such as they might feel toward white laborers and refugees. As soldiers, I think they would respect them, for Milliken’s Bend and Port Hudson have settled the opinion of the Army that “Negroes will fight." How clear it is that the only path of the Negro toward a recognition of his manhood will be through blood. Nothing but hard blows will do away with the vulgar prejudice against him, as a creature without the courage or the nature of a white man.

The army it must be remembered, has become intensely anti-Rebel and so far Anti-Slavery. A great change has passed over it during three years of war, and it has learned to hate with bitter hatred the institution which has brought such a ruin and disaster upon the country. This Revolution and opinion was expressed to me recently by an officer in language more terse than reverent:“I was an out-and-out Breckenridge Democrat once, sir; but now sir I am an Abolitionist, by _____; and not only that, sir but I am a _____ Abolitionist."

I regret to hear, from trustworthy sources, that the contrabands in the western part of the State within our lines, and especially those further down on the Mississippi are suffering much from want of proper food, medicine and sanitary arrangements. The enlisted Negroes are doing very well, but the Negro camps of refugees - women, old men and children - are in a sad condition; disease and disorder prevailing, and the poor creatures dying by the hundreds. No one seems to have any supervision over or concern for them. What is needed is some sanitary officer, who should be authorized to compel a proper camp police among the Negroes, and who could provide when needed suitable food and medicines.

We Trust that the “Emancipation Commission" will look into this matter when their journeys extend to Tennessee.




Wednesday, July 15, 2020

It is Time to Revise Williamson County's Official Seal

On today's date, 1968, Judge Fulton Greer accepted the current (and first and only) version of Williamson County's official seal at the July 15, 1968, Quarterly Court Term.

Wiliamson County Seal

According to the County's website, "The upper left section depicts a flag and cannon, which symbolizes the rich history in the county."  It hardly needs pointing out that the seal does not merely contain "a flag." It is the Confederate flag - It is not the flag of the United States nor the flag of the state of Tennessee.  Using this particular flag only reflects one part of our rich history - it leaves out the men who fought for the Union during the Civil War - white and black; it omits the history of Williamson County's native sons who fought to preserve this country. 

This has to change. It is shameful that we as a community are choosing to elevate one flag - to celebrate the values celebrated by this flag - and it is NOT the flag of our own country.  

It is also worth recognizing that this version of the "Confederate flag" represented on our official County seal was originally the battle flag of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.  Later, that flag came to be seen as a national symbol of the Confederacy and was eventually co-opted by many associated with racial violence. 

Those of you who have read my blog before know that I think it is always important to understand the context in which events occur.  Nothing happens in a vacuum.  Here is a brief timeline of national and local events that I believe are meaningful to understanding the significance behind the time period when the Confederate flag was the sole flag chosen to represent Williamson County's history.

May 1954. US Supreme Court unanimously passes the Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending racial segregation in public schools and knocking down the doctrine of "separate but equal."

September 1957.  Black families in Nashville were harassed and threatened on their first day of school as their first graders desegregated public schools. That night, one of the schools was bombed.



That same month in Little Rock, Arkansas the Governor called in State Guardsmen to prevent nine high school students from attending school there. Later that month, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to the school to prevent the state guard from stopping the students from attending high school.

Spring 1960 Sit-ins held by college students in Nashville cafeterias and stores to protest their segregation policies.

Agitators attack a sit-in demonstrator at Woolworth's lunch counter, February 27, 1960.
Part of the Nashville Banner Collection at Nashville Public Library.

Summer 1961. The state began a several years' long 100th-anniversary commemoration of the Civil War that was heavy on the Lost Cause and Confederate symbolism, including a parade around the state Capitol by three Confederate cavalry regiments - one of which was made up of young boys on ponies making up the Kavalry Kadet Korps [i.e., KKK] of Savannah, Tenn.


August 1961. Seven years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, public schools in Williamson County were still segregated and a group of citizens in Franklin filed a formal request of the School Board for action to be taken. They also pushed for greater representation of African Americans on jury duty and in leadership positions in city and county government. At the time, Williamson County's population was about 25,000 people - about one-third of whom were Black.



Fall 1962.  Franklin Special School District desegregated using a "grade a year" voluntary plan - starting with first grade. This meant that Black families had to volunteer to send their six-year-olds to all-white schools.  Two families sent daughters to the all-white Franklin Elementary School that year.  The desegregation plan did not apply to Williamson County schools or to the high school in Franklin.


August 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave his "I Have a Dream" speech during the Civil Rights March in Washington DC

July 1964. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

November 1964 - Franklin held a commemoration of the Battle of Franklin and the Confederate Monument was rededicated.



October 1966 - US Department of Education was withholding federal funds for the Franklin Special School District due to failure to adequately comply with desegregation orders.

Fall 1967 - Williamson County School Board desegregated Franklin High School and the formerly all-black Natchez High School briefly became an "annex" to FHS. No attempt was made by the County to archive or save the trophies or artifacts important to Natchez High School, which had a thriving football team, marching band, and other extracurricular programs important to the Black community. Following the desegregation of public schools, several private schools formed in the area in reaction to this change.


April 1968. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee

July 1968 Judge Fulton Greer accepted the current (and first and only) version of Williamson County's official seal at the July 15, 1968, Quarterly Court Term

November 1968 - Williamson County voters went for George Wallace in that year's Presidential election.  Wallace was running as the far-right American Independent party candidate and was a staunch segregationist. 

George Wallace campaigning in front of the Confederate flag

Clearly, during the years leading to the adoption of the Williamson County seal, historical memories of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and the Lost Cause had become intertwined with opinions about racial segregation for many. That may not have been the motivating factor behind the adoption of the flag on Williamson County's seal. However, regardless of the rationale, it is no longer appropriate - and never was - to only honor the flag of the Confederacy while the American flag was left off of the official County seal.

It is also worth noting that in 1968, America was embroiled in the Vietnam War.  Men from Williamson County were fighting across the world under that flag.  Several young Black men came home in body bags - including Pvt. Richard Carothers (killed in 1966 and a graduate of Natchez High School), Pvt. James Andrew Cunningham (killed in Vietnam in 1967, a 1964 Natchez High School graduate), Pvt Charles Herbert Hardison (died in Vietnam in 1968, enlisted when still a student at Natchez High School), and Spc John Willie Woods Jr (killed in Vietnam in 1966 and captain of the Natchez High School football team his senior year). 

This week, the Williamson County Commission (the modern version of the County
 Court that adopted the seal in 1968) voted to form a task force to determine whether or not there is “substantial need” to alter the Williamson County seal. The resolution calls for the nine-member task force to receive public input, determine whether there is a need to alter the seal, and study the various community impacts of such an alteration, reporting this information to the commission in September. The following representatives would comprise the task force:
County Mayor Rogers Anderson will form the task force, which will present its determination concerning the county seal to the commission at its meeting on Monday, Sept. 14.

Should the task force and the commission decide the seal should change, the County's resolution includes a clause finding that it meets the definition of a "memorial" requiring the consent of the 
Tennessee Historical Commission to be changed.  This is the same authority that governs the removal of Confederate monuments like Franklin's Confederate Monument. Therefore, a request would go before that body, where it would need two-thirds approval before a final decision could be made by the Williamson County commission.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Nancy Perkins Gardner: 1855-1944 - "I will be with you always!"

Nancy Gardner was born in Franklin in Williamson County, TN. She was interviewed in the 1930s as part of a program run by the federal government WPA's Federal Writers Project that hired writers to interview former slaves. Interviewers, both white and African American, traveled seventeen states interviewing about 2,500 people and took 500 photographs. The interviews were organized by state and published in 1941 as the Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States. Many of the WPA interviewers attempted to transcribe the dialect in which interviewees spoke - which can make reading them sometimes difficult. 

I have tried to track down all the slave narratives of people with ties to Williamson County and have compiled them in this blog post.

Below is the interview with Nancy Gardner along with my comments.  She was about 79 years old when she was interviewed and living in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Well, to tell you the truth I don't know my age, but I was born in 1858, in Franklin, Tennessee. Now, you can figure for yourself and tell how old I am.

[Based on later records, I actually think Nancy was born a little earlier - at least by 1853.]
I am the daughter of Prophet and Callie Isaiah, and they were natives of Tennessee. There was three of us children, two boys and myself. I'm the only girl. My brothers names was Prophet and Billie Isaiah. 

I can't tell you much 'bout work during the slave days because you see I was just a baby you might say when the War broke out. I do remember our Master's name though, it was Dr. Perkins, and he was a good Master. 

[I believe that Nancy was enslaved by Dr. Peter Augustus Perkins and his family.  He was born in Franklin, Williamson County in 1817. His parents were Nicholas "Bigbee" Perkins and Mary Hardin Perkins, one of the wealthiest couples and largest slaveholders in Williamson County. 

Nicholas "Bigbee" Perkins II (1745-1848)

Mary Harden Perkins (1794-1840)
Portrait from Tennessee Library & Archives

Dr. Perkins grew up in the Forest Home area of Williamson County. By 1850 he was enslaving 67 people; in 1860 he was enslaving 68 people. 
A portion of Indenture from Dr. Peter A. Perkins to his brother William O'Neil Perkins
Listing the enslaved people he was selling for $5 in order to assure his brother would care for his wife and children following his death. Listed were Nancy and her parents Prophet (Proffit), Callie (Caledonia), Prophet Jr, and perhaps her youngest brother Willie (Babe).

In 1862, Dr. Perkins entered into an agreement to sell 41 people to his brother William O'Neil Perkins.  W O'N Perkins was a successful attorney and former County Commissioner of Williamson County. Following the Civil War he would serve as Tennessee's Speaker of the House. In the sale agreement between the brothers, the people to be sold were listed and the list included "Proffit, Caledonia, Proffit Jr., Nancy and Babe." I believe this was Nancy's family - who she described as Prophet, Callie, Prophet Jr, and perhaps Babe was her youngest brother Willie. I think that William O'Neil Perkins had them taken from Dr. Perkins to Memphis where they were sold.]

Ma and pa sure hated to have to leave him, he was so good to dem. He was a rich man, and had a big fine house and thousands of acres of land. He was good to his n*****s too. We had a good house too, better dan some of dese houses I see folks living in now. Course Dr. Perkins n****** had to work, but dey didn't mind 'cause he would let dem have little patches of dey own such as 'tatoes, corn, cotton and garden. Jest a little, you know. He couldn't let dem have much, there was so many on Dr. Perkins plantation. I don't remember seeing anybody sick in slavery time. You see I was just a kid and there's a lot of things I can't remember.

"I don't 'member much about them [her brothers and father]  as we was separated when I was seven years old.

I'll never forget when me, my ma and my auntie had to leave my pa and brothers. It is just as clear in my mind now as it was then, and that's been about seventy years ago.

Oh God! I tell you it was awful that day when old Jeff Davis had a bunch of us sent to Memphis to be sold."

This ad was placed by a woman looking for her three children who had been sold in Memphis. 
I think it describes a little bit of what Nancy must have gone through being separated from her father and brothers that awful day in Memphis.


[I have seen a few references to Jefferson Davis selling enslaved people or interacting with them.  I wonder if his name came to represent any slave trader - like Nathan Bedford Forrest - who it is much more likely that Nancy would have come into contact with in Memphis. However, she was living in Montgomery, Alabama after the War - the original capitol of Jefferson Davis' Confederacy, so it is possible that she was around him there.]

I can see old Major Clifton now. He was a big n***** trader you know. Well, they took us on up there to Memphis and we was sold just like cattle. They sold me and ma together and they sold pa and the boys together. They was sent to Mississippi and we was sent to Alabama. My pa, oh how my ma was grieved to death about him! She didn't live long after that. She didn't live long enough to be set free. Poor ma, she died a slave, but she is saved though. I know she is, and I'll be with her some day.

I knowed old Jeff Davis good. Why I was jest as close to him as I am to dat table. I've talked with him too. I reckon I do know dat scoundrel! Why, he didn't want de n****** to be free! He was known as a mean old rascal all over de South.

Abraham Lincoln? Now you is talking 'bout the n****** friend! Why dat was de best man God ever let tramp de earth! Everybody was mighty sad when poor old Abraham was assassinated, 'cause he did a mighty good deed for the colored race before he left this world.

I wasn't here long during slavery, but I saw enough of it to know it was mighty hard going for most of de n****** den, and young folks wouldn't stand for dat kind of treatment now. I know most of the young folks would be killed, but they jest wouldn't stand for it. I would hate to have to go through wid my little share of it again."

I have not determined how or when Nancy was able to claim her freedom, but she seems to have settled in Montgomery, Alabama. On Christmas Day1869, Nancy Perkins married Bailey Gardner in Mongomery, Alabama. Bailey was a hack driver - he drove a horse and carriage giving rides to people around town for a fare.  They appear to have lived a comfortable life. In the 1880s, Bailey's mother lived with them in a home they owned. Nancy worked as a washerwoman and her mother-in-law was a seamstress. 

1880 Federal Census, Montgomery, Alabama

"It was thirty years before my pa knew if we was still living. Finally in some way he heard that I was still alive, and he began writing me. Course I was grown and married then and me and my husband had moved to Missouri. Well, my pa started out to see me and on his way he was drowned in the Missouri River, and I never saw him alive after we was sold in Memphis."

[I have not been able to find any references to Nancy living in Missouri - perhaps she meant Mongomery? But around this time, she did reunite with family living in Guthrie, Oklahoma.  In 1904 she visited her cousin, Cornelius H. Bradley.  I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her.  She had last seen her father and brothers in a slave pen when she was a child.  Her mother had died soon afterward.  But here she was, reuniting with living relatives.  What a joyous time that must have been for her.  

Nancy's cousin had grown up nearby on the extensive Perkins plantations. He was the son of Wallace Bradley (b. 1826) and Margaret Green of Williamson County. Wallace Bradley was enslaved by Nicholas Bigbee Perkins - the father of Dr. Peter Perkins and William O'Neil Perkins. When Nicholas Bigbee Perkins died in 1848, he left his daughter Margaret Perkins Bradley (sister to Dr. Perkins and W O'N Perkins) 40 enslaved people. Named was Wallace -- Cornelius’s father.
Portion of Will of Nicholas Bigbee Perkins
Williamson County, Tennessee 1848

In the 1870 Census, Wallace Bradley's family was counted living on or near the former plantation of Nicholas Bigbee Perkins' son Nicholas Edwin Perkins. Cornelius was 16 years old.
1870 Federal Census
Williamson County, Tennessee, District 6

Wallace's son Cornelius married his wife Elizabeth Ridley in Williamson County in 1877.  Cornelius, Elizabeth, and their son O'Neil (named after the former enslaver?) moved to Kansas and later to Oklahoma where Nancy visited them.  Their participation in the Exoduster movement followed the path that so many African Americans from Williamson County took - read more here about this migration. In 1904 trip the visit was reported on in the local newspaper, the Guthrie Progress.]

The Guthrie Progress - 23 Jul 1904 - Page 3

The Guthrie Progress was published by
O'Neil Bradley, the son of Nancy's cousin.

[It was no coincidence that the paper reported on the reunion. At the time of the visit, Cornelius'  son O'Neil was the publisher of the Guthrie Progress newspaper. It was common for formerly enslaved people to publish newspaper ads looking for long-lost family.  Since O'Neil was in the publishing business, it makes me wonder if that contributed to the family finding each other again.  (You can find my collection of these types of ads for people from Williamson County here.)  Sadly, the year after her visit, Nancy's cousin Cornelius died.

O'Niel Herman “O.H.” Bradley
O'Niel Herman Bradley
Son of Nancy's cousin

In 1911, Nancy's husband Bailey also died and she sold his horses and equipment by placing an ad in the local Montgomery, Alabama newspaper. 

Soon after, she returned for another visit with her cousin's family in Oklahoma. In this newspaper clipping, we learn that not only did Nancy have a cousin living in Oklahoma, but she also had an uncle there. 

Judge George Napier Perkins
Nancy Perkins Gardner's uncle
Photograph, Oklahoma Historical Society

Nancy and Cornelius had an uncle Judge George Napier Perkins. He was an extraordinary man and I will write more about him and the family in a future blog post. Once again, I have to say how wonderful and remarkable it must have been for Nancy to be surrounded by family - and such a successful one. Her cousin's son O'Neil had been elected as the town's Justice of the Peace since her last visit. During her visit, she may have visited other Williamson Countians living in Dover, Oklahoma such as Green Currin's family (see my blog post about him here).


Sadly, during this trip to visit family in Oklahoma, the house that Nancy and her husband Bailey Gardner had worked so hard for was burned down in an arson. 

Montgomery (Al) Times, Oct 10, 1912

After the fire, Nancy moved to Oklahoma to be closer to her family following the loss of her home and her husband. She seems to have remained close to Cornelius' widow and son O. H. Bradley. By that time, O. H. Bradley was an undertaker and publisher and editor of the Boley Progress, a newspaper for African Americans in the all-Black town of Boley, Oklahoma. O.H. Bradley was even the mayor of Boley in the 1930s.

Video about the history of Boley, Oklahoma

By 1916, Nancy Perkins Gardner moved to Oklahoma City where she worked as a cook - and where she was interviewed about 20 years later when she was in her mid-70s. 

1932 Oklahoma City Directory
Listing for Nancy Gardner, widow of Bailey
She was living at 501 Missouri Avenue

I am fairly certain that Nancy died in 1944. There is a plot in Block 29, Lot 79 of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma that I believe is hers. Her cousin Cornelius was buried in the adjacent plot- Block 29, Lot 81 in 1904. When his wife Elizabeth died in 1944 and son O'Neill died in 1948 they were buried there as well. Her Uncle Judge Perkins and his wife are buried in a nearby section (Section 2, block 5).  (Full cemetery map here.)

A portion of Summit View Cemetery map showing locations of Judge George Perkins burial (far left) and suspected burial of Nancy Perkins Gardner and Bradley cousins (upper right)

Nancy Perkins Gardner does not appear to have left any descendants. But her life and her legacy live on through this interview. 

Her description of her faith is one of the most beautiful I have ever read.

I joined the church nigh on seventy years ago and when I say dat, I don't mean I just joined the church. 

I mean I gave myself up to the Heavenly Father, and I've been goine straight down the line for Him ever since do now,

You know in those days, we didn't get religion like young folks. Young folks today just find the church and then call theyselves Christians, but they ain't. 
I remember just as well when I was converted.  One day I was thinking about a sermon the preacher had preached and a voice spoke to me and said,"The Holy Ghost is over your head.  Accept it!"  Right then I got down on my knees and prayed to God that I might understand that voice, and God Almighty in a vision told me that I should find the church.  I could hardly wait for the next service so I could find it, and when I was in the water getting my baptisement, that same voice spoke and said, "Now you have accepted don't turn back because I will be with you always!" O you don't know nothing about thatat kind of religion!
I remember one night shortly after I joined the church I was laying in bed and there was a vine tied 'round my waist and that vine extended into the elements. I could see my Divine Master and he spoke to me and said, "When you get in trouble shake this vine; I am your Master and I will hear your cry."