Search This Blog

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.