A Preservation Epiphany: African American Schools in Gibson County

By Amanda Barry, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

Graduate students, be they M.A.s or Ph.D.s, often find themselves experiencing a full range of emotions throughout their studies. There’s the frustration when tackling projects, and the elation when they’re finally complete. This semester, I found myself filled with an uncharacteristic emotion: hate. Yes, I hated my thesis topic. I had chosen to focus on the progressive efforts that historic plantation sites were taking to interpret slavery within the landscape. It was a topic I was familiar with, and it was safe. It lacked passion and purpose, however, and I quickly found myself dreading the impending research necessary to complete a lengthy paper. So, in what I have come to call a “preservation epiphany,” I changed my thesis topic with one semester of my studies remaining. Why such a daring move? As has happened to many students at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP), I was inspired by a community.

Over the CHP’s thirty years, students and staff have worked with many historic southern schools: schools big and small, rural and urban, black and white. The history of education in the United States often falls along the color line, especially in the South where state laws often prohibited integrated schools. Segregation is an uncomfortable history to grapple with, but one that must be tackled in order to appropriately contextualize a given school.

African American schools built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries represent a storied history of education in the United States. African American communities viewed education as a path to equal citizenship. Access to an education, denied for so long, became a precious commodity. After the Civil War, African American children and adults alike flocked to schools in droves to learn to read, write, learn, study, and receive industrial training. The physical structure and curriculum of these schools were often influenced by outside forces, including the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Julius Rosenwald Fund, and white school board members intent on keeping African Americans in their place. Indeed, the effects of Plessy v. Ferguson can be seen in the physical construction of African American schools across the South during the period of “separate but equal.”

In the face of racial oppression and adversity, African American communities remained resilient. Their strength can be felt today in the lives and work of “desegregation-era” community members in Gibson County, Tennessee, many of whom lived through the transition that took place after Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional. Specifically, recent CHP work has brought us to Sitka School, a rural Rosenwald school situated eight miles from Polk-Clark School (the site of another CHP partnership) in Milan, Tennessee. Engaging with the community is essential for this type of preservation work.

A day of fieldwork at Sitka School with African American community members who attended the school as children.

A day of fieldwork at Sitka School with African American community members who attended the school as children.

Many of these preservation projects have grown out of a sense of nostalgia that African American communities have for their schools built under segregation. The influence of desegregation on these communities and schools was monumental, ranging from the loss of community fabric and identity to closure and abandonment. Despite the problems of underfunding and overcrowding, schools like Sitka were a testament to self-reliance and perseverance. There was a collective energy invested in achieving a common goal.

Originally called the Industrial Training School for Negroes and later named the Gibson County Training School, Polk-Clark School was the first four-year high school for African Americans in Gibson County.  It is now a community center with exhibits about its history.

Originally called the Industrial Training School for Negroes and later named the Gibson County Training School, Polk-Clark School was the first four-year high school for African Americans in Gibson County. It is now a community center with exhibits about its history.

Preservation of segregation-era African American schools helps communities reverse the sense of loss of their educational heritage. It allows for a new platform to highlight African American leadership, culture, and traditions embodied in these institutions. The passion of Gibson County community members for preservation and re-use of their schools inspired my change of course. I’m eager to learn from these community members as I research community-based preservation of segregation-era African American schools for my “preservation epiphany” Master’s thesis.

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Getting to Know Harding Cabin at Belle Meade Plantation

By Noel Harris, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

This semester, Heritage Area interpretive specialist Leigh Ann Gardner and I have been thinking a lot about Harding Cabin, the oldest structure still standing at Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville. Not only was it probably the first home of the Harding family at the site, but it was also the home of talented horse trainer Bob Green and his family for many years. We are working to create a historic structure report (HSR) on the cabin. There are many stories that have been passed down about the building that Belle Meade’s curatorial staff question. For instance, was the cabin really built in the late 1700s? Were the two chambers of the cabin erected at the same time? With the historic structure report, we hope to answer these questions.

Historic structure reports are comprehensive collections of data describing the appearance, construction, and history of a building. HSRs begin with a written history of the site. This section features stories about the past owners and occupants of the building, as well as significant events that have occurred at the site. HSRs also include historic photographs or artwork depicting the building in the past. Another chapter records the physical details of the building through descriptions, elevations, room maps, and other detailed drawings.

The family of Bob Greene, renowned horse trainer at Belle Meade, at Harding Cabin at about the turn of the twentieth century. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The family of Bob Green, renowned horse trainer at Belle Meade and the highest paid worker there after the Civil War, at Harding Cabin at about the turn of the century. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

In order to gather information, we searched the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) collections and the Belle Meade Plantation records, as well as the architecture library at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP). The TSLA materials were the most time-consuming because the Harding-Jackson Papers cover almost one hundred years of the property’s history. These records include family letters, newspaper clippings, and business ledgers, all helpful in piecing together a more complete history of the cabin.

While Leigh Ann and I were doing our library research, the curatorial staff at Belle Meade was conducting its own investigation. They hired tree-dating specialists, or dendrochronologists, to date the trees the cabin was constructed from. The final report has not come back yet, but so far, indications are that elm, ash, and poplar were all used in the construction of the cabin. The cabin’s two pens (a pen is a structurally separate room of a cabin) were constructed from different types of trees, but the preliminary findings reflect that the pens were erected in the same year. The Harding family’s business ledgers held at TSLA reveal that the family forested trees, milled wood, and sold it to local builders. Each entry shows the type of tree milled and the purchaser. When that information is compared to the final dendrochronology report, we hope to learn something about who may have helped in erecting the cabin.

It has long been thought that the cabin’s pens were erected at different times because they were constructed by two different methods. One chamber has half-dovetail notches cut on the corners. These logs were worked with an adze or an axe, creating relatively smooth, flat sides. Because the logs fit pretty snugly, the chinking used to fill the spaces between the logs is minimal. The other chamber of the cabin has round log v-notching, and the logs are less squared off, and less straight.

Half dovetail joints on one pen of Harding Cabin. Note the cut marks in the logs. The shape and regularity of the marks reflect the possibility that the logs were split using a wedge and mallet.

Half-dovetail joints on one pen of Harding Cabin. Note the cut marks in the logs. The shape and regularity of the marks reflect the possibility that the logs were split using a wedge and mallet.

The Hardings also quarried stone from the property. The cabin’s fireplaces and chimneys are both made from hand-cut stone. In the future, we will look for records identifying the stone and compare them to the ledger showing the quarrying records.

Stone chimney and squared-off log wall at Harding Cabin

Stone chimney and squared-off log wall at Harding Cabin.

The more time we spend at the site, the more we feel like we know the people who constructed the building. This important cabin’s two-century lifetime will take some time to record, but the outcome will certainly give us a better understanding of its history.

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‘Tis the Season for Conferences: Sharing Stories of Asheville and Jekyll Island

By Jenna Stout, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

Fall is always a busy time at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP). New projects, an incoming group of graduate assistants, fieldwork, and conferences make for bustling schedules. Although the prospect of missing class for a few days is overwhelming (and exciting), conferences are a vital way for CHPers to present their scholarship, receive useful feedback, and learn about other developments in the field.

Jenna at Conference

I co-presented my exhibition work in the “Spotlight on Student Research” category at SEMC.

At the end of October, I had the privilege of presenting at back-to-back conferences, the Ohio Valley History Conference (OVHC) and the Southeastern Museum Conference (SEMC). My OVHC presentation, entitled “Sanitizing the Consumptive Past: Asheville’s Tubercular Legacy in the Early 20th Century,” focused on Asheville’s paradoxical relationship with tubercular patients and showcased some of my ongoing dissertation research.

Following my presentation at OVHC in Clarksville, I was off to East Tennessee with a group of graduate students to present at SEMC. This year’s annual meeting, advertised as “Appalachian Renaissance: Renewing Tradition, Rethinking Approaches,” took place at the Holiday Inn at World’s Fair Park in scenic Knoxville. While the OVHC is very much an academic history conference, SEMC is a professional conference that spotlights innovative ideas being implemented at museums throughout the Southeast. During the three-day conference, I had the privilege of sitting in on the “Historic Homes of Knoxville” session and hearing Dr. Katie Stringer, a graduate of MTSU’s Public History Program and now executive director of Blount Mansion, discuss collaborative efforts among historic house museums in the Knoxville area.

For my SEMC session, I joined three of my colleagues from the 2014 MTSU Field School at Jekyll Island to give an overview of the exhibitions we created during our stay. The presentation, entitled “Interpreting ‘Others’ on Jekyll Island: A Voice for Servants and Children,” highlighted our three-week immersive experience on Jekyll Island, Georgia, last May.

Jenna and Fellow Presenters

Four of the Jekyll Island Field School participants who presented on their exhibitions: L to R, Lane Tilner, Caleb Knies, Rachel Lewis, and Jenna Stout.

The Jekyll Island Club (1886 – 1942) was once considered the playground for America’s elite. Yet, in order for Club members to enjoy the “simple” life that Jekyll offered, more than 200 employees worked at the height of the season each winter. From cooks to golf caddies, servants made life as easy as possible for members and guests. No longer an exclusive club, Jekyll Island is now a state park, and many of the former Club buildings are operated as part of a museum.

Mistletoe Cottage, constructed in about 1900, is located in the Jekyll Island Historic District.

Mistletoe Cottage, constructed in about 1900, is located in the Jekyll Island Historic District.

A group of thirteen graduate students participated in the field school on Jekyll Island. In coordination with the Jekyll Island Museum and Authority, fellow doctoral student Rachel Lewis and I developed an interactive exhibition on servant life. Completed in just three weeks, our exhibition sought to bring to light the other half of the Jekyll Island Club’s history. The kitchen is one of the most common spaces to interpret servant life at house museums. We used two warming kitchens at Mistletoe Cottage as a springboard to interpret servant life, as well as work beyond the confines of that space.

Due to the limited time allotted in the space during tours, we chose to present “chunks” of information throughout the two rooms. These vignettes provided visitors with easily digestible facts and anecdotes intended to provoke larger discussions with the museum’s tour guides. In addition, our interactive components aimed to reinforce both the physicality and mental dexterity required of servants during the Club era. Our exhibition’s emphasis on servants reflects trends in house museums to provide more inclusive narratives.

One of the interactive components, "Knowing Their Place," invited visitors to try their hand at arranging a place setting using period instructions.

One of the interactive components, “Knowing Their Place,” invited visitors to arrange a place setting using period instructions.

During the SEMC presentation, Lewis and I focused on how we used a traditional servant space (the kitchen) to highlight servant life throughout the Club property. We also addressed challenges faced in our exhibition space and how our exhibition can be used as a model for interpreting servant life at other institutions. Audience members responded positively to the Jekyll Island Field School as a model for other universities and museums to use.

The installation of scrim on the large kitchen windows enlivened the space and allowed for some of the museum's collection of photographs to be showcased.

The installation of scrim on the large kitchen windows enlivened the space and allowed for some of the museum’s collection of photographs to be showcased.

Although my two conference presentations were vastly different in topic, both highlighted sectors of the population often lost in traditional accounts of history. At the turn of the twentieth century, tubercular patients and working servants were often hidden from view, one in sanitariums and the other “below stairs.” Public history allows for previously ignored groups to gain a voice, and I appreciate the opportunity to tell a more inclusive story through my studies at MTSU and my work at the CHP.

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Nashville’s Not-So-Trolley “Trolley Barns”

By Katie Sutton Randall, Fieldwork Coordinator, Center for Historic Preservation

From the Rolling Mill Hill development Web site: “To live and work at Rolling Mill Hill is to thrive within a culture of creativity and collaboration – and to exhibit a shared commitment to environmental stewardship and historic preservation.”

Over the past few years, a collection of historic buildings at Rolling Mill Hill in Nashville has been developed into mixed-use space, featuring condominiums, creative and flexible office space, and the trendy Pinewood Social, an eclectic watering hole where one can have coffee from neighborhood-favorite Crema, meet coworkers for lunch, sip a carefully crafted cocktail at happy hour, sit by a pool, or even enjoy a game of bowling with friends.

The Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) worked with the Metropolitan Historical Commission to list some of these buildings on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, and it has been thrilling to watch the neighborhood’s transformation take place. It’s not often that we as preservationists get to see such progress in such a short window of time. However, as a preservationist and Nashville resident, it has been interesting for me to witness how the history of these buildings has been misunderstood from the beginning.

Municipal Garages in 2010.

Nashville’s historic municipal garages in 2010.

Six industrial buildings at Rolling Mill Hill were listed on the National Register as the Municipal Public Works Garage Industrial District. These single-story, red-brick buildings are more commonly known to Nashvillians today as “the Trolley Barns.” Though “trolley barn” is a much shorter and catchier name than “municipal public works garage,” these buildings never housed trolleys or streetcars. In fact, the garages were completed in about 1940, around the same time that the streetcar system in Nashville was abandoned in favor of buses for public transportation.

Aerial views of the property from 1930 (left; courtesy of Metro Archives) and 1953.

Aerial views of the property from about 1930, before the garages were built (left), and about 1956 (right). Courtesy of Metro Nashville Archives.

Originally funded by the Public Works Administration (PWA) in 1938, these buildings were completed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sometime between 1939 and 1941, following the dissolution of the PWA. The garages housed several city public works departments, including Engineering; Water Works; Streets, Sewers, and Sidewalks; Street Cleaning; Street Sprinkling and Sanitation; and the Municipal Garage. Buses, police cars, and other city vehicles were serviced there.

Garage and smokestack from about 1853 (left; courtesy of Metro Archives), and in 2010 (right).

Garage and smokestack in 1953 (left; courtesy of Metro Nashville Archives) and in 2010 (right).

So where did the “trolley barn” myth begin? One possible explanation is that the parcel of property the garages inhabit has long been owned by the city of Nashville and was at one time the location of city stables. Nashville’s earliest streetcars were mule-drawn, so perhaps the connection between the stables and trolleys began there. The truth remains, however, that the real trolley barns of Nashville were located downtown near the Public Square and are no longer extant.

Many people proudly cite the National Register designation when talking about Rolling Mill Hill but are evidently not reading the full National Register nomination. The Rolling Mill Hill development Web site gives such a description: “Rolling Mill Hill’s character reflects an industrial strength tempered by nostalgia and poetic charm…The trolley barns, originally home to Nashville’s streetcar fleet, are on the National Register of Historic Places and now house office and commercial spaces for some of Nashville’s most visionary companies.”

The trolley barn myth has been further perpetuated by Metro’s own Housing Development Authority’s “Trolley Barns Fact Sheet,” which correctly cites the garages’ WPA connection but not their original use, and by articles in The Tennessean, The Nashvile Scene, and The New York Times, which all refer to these historic structures as “trolley barns.”

So what can we as historians and preservationists do about this misconception? It seems to be very firmly entrenched in the minds of Nashvillians already. Signage at the site directs visitors to the “trolley barns,” and to many, this difference in distinction may seem insignificant or trivial. Thankfully, the true narrative is preserved through the National Register program, a great resource for documentation. Aside from that, perhaps the best we can do is continue to put forth the history, educate the public as opportunities present themselves, and discuss this and similar topics concerning the intersection of preservation and the enormous growth of our beloved city whenever we get the chance. Forums like this blog and other forms of social media can be a great means for spreading the word. In addition, groups like Historic Nashville, Inc. have tackled this topic on their Facebook pages.

See Also:

For further reading on Nashville’s transit history: http://www.nashvillemta.org/Nashville-MTA-history.asp

For images of an actual trolley barn in Atlanta: http://www.thetrolleybarn.com/history


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Professional Residency: Providing a New Perspective on Historic Hotels

By Ginna Foster Cannon, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

Walking Horse Hotel (1914) in Wartrace, TN.

Walking Horse Hotel (1914) in Wartrace, TN.

Doctoral students in the Public History Program at MTSU are required to do a nine-month professional residency, as well as participate in a monthly colloquium. In my cohort of six students, residency projects include developing a digital collection on a textile mill community in Rome, Georgia, for the Southern Places database; interpreting and developing signage for Fort Granger, a Civil War site in Franklin, Tennessee; and designing an online exhibit for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in addition to teaching an undergraduate course in Public History at MTSU. The diversity of our residencies speaks to the breadth of both the practice of public history and our individual interests.

For my residency, I am writing a “white paper” study of National Register-listed hotels and inns in Tennessee for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. This heritage development plan will provide an updated inventory of the twenty-five identified properties to assess their potential as heritage assets.

National Register-Listed Hotels and Inns in TN.

National Register-Listed Hotels and Inns in Tennessee.

Because African Americans were not allowed to stay at inns and hotels that served white travelers in Tennessee during the era of segregation, I will do additional research on properties listed in the guidebook for African American travelers known as the Green Book, published by Victor Green from 1936 to 1964. The “Colored Hotel” in Union City is the only African American hotel property listed on the National Register in Tennessee (2008).

To date, I have visited nine of my targeted sites, logged thousands of miles, and gained a deeper appreciation for how landscapes of all types–historic, built, political, and cultural–contribute to significance, a key element of National Register-eligibility. Fieldwork is giving me a feel for the unique personalities of Tennessee’s historic travel establishments and their communities. While these hotels and inns are historic, they are very much grounded in the present. How they are used and developed matters to more than just those who have a financial stake in them. Regardless of state of repair, current operating status, or official historic designation, the establishments are often sources of pride for community members. The buildings are a tangible link to the past and speak to a community’s longevity. Many of them also seem to speak to the promise of the future–a well-maintained and marketed historic hotel can be a destination and bring heritage tourism dollars to the community. They also can be rehabilitated into offices (such as the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville), nursing homes (Guest House/Alexander Inn in Oak Ridge), and individual residences (Watertown Bed & Breakfast), thereby contributing to a community’s tax base.

Going into my residency, I viewed importance and National Register-listing as synonymous. As a born-and-bred New Yorker, Nashville transplant, and academic, I privileged large, urban hotels listed on the National Register over small, rural establishments that are not listed (see photos below). How mistaken I was! Regardless of their official status, historic hotels and inns provide inspiration for communities, linking the past, present, and future in wood, brick, and stone. If you would like to follow my travels across the state, please visit my blog, “Reflections on Historic Hotels in Tennessee.”

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Public History: History at the Grassroots Level in the Hard Bargain Community

By Marquita Reed, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

At the end of my first three weeks of classes in the Public History Program at MTSU, I understood two important maxims of public history: one, the audience is first, and two, the community should be engaged in the production of public history. These two principles proved themselves true when I started my first project for the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP).

The McLemore House in Franklin, TN.

The McLemore House in Franklin, TN.

As part of my practical fieldwork with the CHP, I was assigned to the McLemore House Museum. Built in 1880, by ex-slave Harvey McLemore, the McLemore House is one of the first residential homes in the African American community of Hard Bargain, in Franklin, Tennessee. The end goal of the CHP project this semester is to develop and install an exhibition that focuses on the members of the McLemore family. Other colleagues working on this project include CHP staff members Laura Holder and Leigh Ann Gardner, as well as fellow CHP graduate research assistant Torren Gatson.

On my first visit to the McLemore House, our group met with members of the museum’s board, who were eager to get the museum running. What I gathered from the meeting and tour was that the board wanted the McLemore House Museum to tell not only the story of Harvey McLemore but that of the Hard Bargain community as well. Looking over my notes after the meeting, I realized that although I had information about Harvey McLemore and his family, I knew nothing about Hard Bargain. I started to wonder about what was important to the community and how the McLemore House could tell that story.

This picture shows Maggie McLemore, granddaughter of Harvey McLemore.  Courtesy of Thelma Battle.

This picture shows Maggie McLemore, granddaughter of Harvey McLemore. Courtesy of Thelma Battle.

I got my answer a few weeks later when we sat down to talk with Thelma Battle, a local historian and Hard Bargain native. Meeting her was an enriching experience and affirmed for me that public history starts at the grassroots level in a community. As Thelma Battle shuffled through her collected research, including maps, deeds, pictures, and newspaper articles, she also told stories about the McLemore family and Hard Bargain.

As she spoke, the details of the family and neighborhood became more than just an oral history; they became a lived experience. As I listened and took notes as fast as possible, I began to comprehend the importance of the McLemore House in the Hard Bargain community. Thelma Battle helped me to see that education, the church, and entrepreneurship were, and still are, important themes in Hard Bargain. The values, structure, and history of the community add context to the significance of the McLemore House.

A marker identifies this historic African American community.

The public historian must always take time to talk to members of the community. It is only through dialogue that a historian can begin to understand how to best interpret a place and its inhabitants. The CHP strives to make sure that the students practicing public history understand that a good public historian always puts the audience first and engages the community in the production of public history.

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The Headless Horseman, Halloween, and History: Talking with Tennessee Teachers about The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

By Ethan Morris, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

In October, Teaching with Primary Sources-MTSU hosted a teacher workshop at the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville. The workshop focused on America’s Early Republic, 1800-1850. I had the opportunity to lead a session on using Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in the classroom. (Follow this link to view the TPS-MTSU October newsletter and the inspiration for my session–see page 3.) As I facilitated teacher discussion, the teachers and I realized that there was more relevancy and life to Irving’s 1820 text than we had expected. The story provided several opportunities to discuss both social and educational change in America and popular culture.

Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Washington Irving (1783–1859). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899. Courtesy of the Margaret Armstrong Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow follows schoolmaster Ichabod Crane’s short stay in Tarrytown, New York, and his disappearance after an encounter with the headless horseman. The session gave teachers an occasion to analyze society and education in 1820 and comment on the changes over the past two centuries. The story’s emphasis on paddling students was immediately noted as unacceptable today, and the fact that Crane boarded, worked, and attended social functions with his students’ families was discussed with humor. Several teachers commented on their students’ shock upon running into them at the local grocery store. The teachers, however, did notice that Crane’s 1820 school had commonalities with rural schools today but would be entirely foreign to many inner-city school children. The discussion frequently shifted to broad social changes and inspired comments about families, work, farms, religion, discipline, and generational change–all issues that resonate with both teachers and students, and can help students actively engage with historical texts.

TPS-MTSU education specialist Kira Duke discusses primary source maps with teachers.

TPS-MTSU education specialist Kira Duke discusses primary source maps with teachers.

The most interesting portion of the session was an analysis of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in popular culture. We looked at clips and trailers from Disney’s 1949 animated musical adaption, the 1999 feature film adaption starting Johnny Depp, and the current Fox television series. Moving from the forties to the present, the adaptions became increasingly darker, action-packed, and conspiratorial. Most fascinating was the development of Ichabod Crane from a lanky schoolteacher in 1949, to a suave constable in 1999, and finally to a spy with a supernatural mission. Crane’s character development opened up the floor for an analysis of the changing qualities of heroes in American society. Teachers also brought up students’ changing gaming, movie, and book choices. The discussion once again moved beyond Irving’s text and created conversation pieces that could be used in the classroom to engage students in historical analysis.

Teachers participate in a gallery walk exploration of primary source material.

Teachers participate in a gallery walk exploration of primary source material.

After only an hour, I was pleased with the number of interdisciplinary ideas teachers had suggested for possible uses of the classic Halloween story in the classroom. It was surprising how discussion could inspire so many diverse ideas. My session on Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as well as the entire Early Republic workshop and a short talk by University of Tennessee lecturer Dr. Kyle Stephens, were designed to present teachers with new resources from the Library of Congress, different perspectives on commonly used documents and pictures, and strategies to help Tennessee’s students learn.

Check out the Teaching with Primary Sources-MTSU Web site for upcoming workshops.

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