A Forgotten Monument Campaign

By Antoinette G. van Zelm, Assistant Director, Center for Historic Preservation

Monuments to women are few and far between on the historic landscape. Surprisingly, early in the twentieth century a group of Tennessee women began an initiative to erect a monument to women who had remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War. I made this intriguing discovery while researching the activities of the Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC) in Tennessee. Currently, I am still following leads to learn more about this unique monument campaign, which apparently never came to fruition.

The WRC was the national women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union veterans organization that wielded significant political power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Founded in 1883, the WRC became a force in its own right, quickly developing into the second-largest women’s organization in the United States (behind the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union). By 1900, the WRC had 118,000 members working through 3000 corps (or local chapters) in 36 states, including Tennessee.

The WRC had gained a foothold in urban areas of Tennessee during the 1880s and 1890s. By 1900, 183 women belonged to nine corps (five white and four black), with the white corps concentrated in East Tennessee and the African American corps located in the cities of Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. True to the goals of the WRC, Tennessee’s members assisted aged veterans and commemorated Union victory. Though small in number, Tennessee’s WRC women were viewed by national WRC leaders as important representatives of the organization within the former Confederacy.

The proceedings of the WRC's national convention in 1901 listed four African American corps in Tennessee, along with the names and addresses of each corps' president.

The proceedings of the WRC’s national convention in 1901 listed four African American corps for Tennessee, along with the names and addresses of each corps’ president.

In 1896, Tennessee’s Lookout Corps (one of three WRC corps in Chattanooga) proposed to build a monument to loyal women as “a perpetual reminder to all posterity of woman’s devotion to and love for her country.” The women hoped the monument could be placed in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which had just opened the year before as the first Civil War national military park. Local and state GAR leaders supported the idea, but state and national WRC leaders were more hesitant. WRC national president Lizabeth A. Turner believed the initiative would take too much attention away from needy veterans and their families.

A 1918 view of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A 1918 view of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Tennessee women persisted in advocating the monument in honor of loyal women, however, and by 1900 they had received the endorsement of the national WRC. The next year, the “Loyal Woman’s Monument Association,” under the auspices of the Lookout Corps, received a charter from the state of Tennessee. Fascinatingly, the organization had multiple, diverse goals–including the support of scientific endeavors and promotion of the fine arts–but its overriding purpose was “the erection of a monument or monuments to the memory of the loyal women in the war of 1861 to 1865 between the states.” The association, which had both female and male members, had the power to purchase real estate or receive it as a gift. The news of the founding of the Tennessee monument organization made its way into The New York Times, which carried a short blurb in its July 14, 1901, edition.

Several of the white women who served as officers for the WRC in Tennessee were founding members of the the Loyal Woman's Monument Association.

Several of the white women who served as WRC departmental officers in Tennessee (listed here in the proceedings of the WRC’s national convention in 1901) were founding members of the the Loyal Woman’s Monument Association.

My next steps are to discover what the monument association did and how its goals changed between the turn of the century and the Great Depression. According to a 1933 historical sketch of the Tennessee WRC written by the group’s historian, the monument campaign had raised more than $3000, which had been invested in two city lots near the Chattanooga National Cemetery. World War I and the depression had stymied progress on the project, but when the economy improved the Tennessee WRC hoped to build a meeting hall there for the GAR, WRC, and other patriotic groups, a building that would also serve as a memorial.

The entrance to the Chattanooga National Cemetery in about 1902.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The entrance to the Chattanooga National Cemetery in about 1902. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Additional research avenues to explore include the relationship between the creation of the Loyal Woman’s Monument Association and the activities of Confederate organizations in Tennessee. In 1895, the United Confederate Veterans had suggested that monuments to Confederate women be erected throughout the southern states. Might this have motivated the Unionist women of Chattanooga to propose their own monument? Additionally, did the white WRC women who spearheaded the monument campaign ever consider reaching out to their African American sisters for assistance?

The existence of the monument association reflected the desire of a group of Tennessee’s Unionist women to honor women’s contributions to the conflict. Turning this goal into a reality proved to be fraught with difficulties, however, as I continue to discover. Taking the historical view and understanding how shaping the public memory of the Civil War has engaged (and divided) citizens for more than a century provides much-needed perspective on today’s discussions about the Civil War memorials in our midst.  

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And You Thought Teachers Took the Summers Off!

By Kira Duke, Education Specialist, Center for Historic Preservation

Most folks think that summer vacation for teachers is a time to kick back, sleep in, and enjoy a two-month vacation. For the vast majority of teachers, however, summer is a time to continue their own learning through the variety of professional development opportunities offered during their “down” time. For TPS-MTSU, we look at summer as a chance to offer some of our most in-depth workshops and as an opportunity to get teachers out to some of the wonderful historic sites in our state.


A great group of educators at our TPS–MTSU Civil War Institute on Reconstruction, with community leaders from the George Clem Multicultural Alliance in front of the George Clem School in the Wesley Heights neighborhood.

During the month of June, we offered two multi-day sessions, one on labor history and the other on Reconstruction. For each of these, our participants were asked to read selected articles on the topic in advance of the workshop. We also incorporated the relatively new TPS Teacher Network into each of these sessions as a way to engage the participants in conversation prior to the workshops and to continue conversations within the groups after the workshops.

In each workshop, we explored some of the wonderful primary sources available from the Library of Congress and discussed how these sources fit into the new, rigorous state social studies standards. These workshops also gave us a chance to highlight some of the excellent lesson plans created by our TPS-MTSU graduate assistants. These included “Fights, Freedom, and Fraud: Voting Rights in the Reconstruction Era,” written by Ethan Morris, “Industrial Revolution,” by Brian Stinson, and “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire,” by Ashley Armstrong.

The labor history workshop featured guest speaker Dr. Bob Hutton from the University of Tennessee’s History Department. Dr. Hutton addressed labor history through the lens of the Appalachian experience. Rebecca Byrd, a teacher from Sevier County and the teacher-in-residence with the East Tennessee Historical Society, highlighted some of her favorite exhibition items related to East Tennessee’s labor history at the East Tennessee History Center. Bringing together these local stories and resources inspired many of our participants to create lesson activities that would help their students draw connections to their own community’s labor stories.

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The next week our TPS-MTSU crew, Dr. Stacey Graham, Dr. Antoinette van Zelm (who we have drafted into service for many of our Civil War-related events), and I, headed to Greeneville for the final Civil War Summer Institute of the Sesquicentennial period. Our focus was the tumultuous Reconstruction era. Through our advanced readings and Dr. van Zelm’s remarks on the first day, our group was given both a national and state context for the Reconstruction period.

During our second day of the institute, our group visited the Doak House Museum and the Andrew Johnson Museum and Library at Tusculum College, where we met with Dollie Boyd, director of the Department of Museum Program and Studies. Next, our group ventured over to the Wesley Heights neighborhood, where community leaders from the George Clem Multicultural Alliance discussed the history of this African American community, which dates back to the Reconstruction period. We ended the day at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, where our group saw Johnson’s tailor shop, his home, and grave site. We also had the opportunity to vote on Johnson’s impeachment at the visitor center. Our institute concluded with our participants drafting ideas about how they would use primary sources to teach students about the complicated and often contentious issues of the Reconstruction period.

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We thoroughly enjoyed working with these two wonderful groups of educators. Now we are taking a collective breath as we ready ourselves for the next wave of summer workshops. This month, TPS-MTSU will be partnering with the Tennessee State Library and Archives for a multi-day institute on World War I, and we will also be working with Tennessee History Day to offer a series of one-day sessions throughout East Tennessee. So, as you cruise around this summer, be on the lookout for our TPS-MTSU crew as we head to our next summer workshop. Oh, and take a moment to tell your local educators how much you appreciate their dedication to continued learning.

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Who Were the Artisans? Mining Material Culture

Dr. Susan W. Knowles, Digital Humanities Research Fellow, Center for Historic Preservation

When I first began my research on the Tennessee marble industry, I was engaged primarily in architectural history. Architects choose building materials according to durability, appearance, and function. My focus was originally on civic architecture—public buildings and their purpose and symbolism. These buildings are usually attributed to known individuals, such as Alfred Mullett, the U.S. Treasury architect who designed Knoxville’s Custom House and Post Office and who became a national champion of the local marble.

Custom House, Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1904. Courtesy of  the Library of Congress.

Custom House and Post Office, Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1904. From the Detroit Publishing Co. Photograph Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Through my research, I followed several individuals in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Tennessee, who had seen the future and gotten involved in the marble business–the venture capitalists of the day—but I could only go so far in the historical record. Much of what has been published is in the geological literature. Having used GIS (a geographic information system) to overlay historic maps onto contemporary geography, I sensed that more could be done on the ground to bring this history to light.

The methodology of historic preservation offered additional avenues. Dr. Carroll Van West and I proposed a survey of extant structures and markers in the cultural landscape. I combed through public records, casting a wide net in order to understand which properties had once been used for marble quarrying or production. I gathered property deeds, wills, and contracts that might be relevant.

I also reached out to the descendants of marble families. Some, like Priscilla Moore in Hawkins County, Jeff and John Craig in Knox and Blount counties, and Harmon Kreis in Knox County, took us to see former quarry lands. They shared stories, documents, ledgers, and photographs still in their hands.

Hobbs Store, Concord, with Jeff Craig.

Hobbs Store, Concord, with Jeff Craig.

With the help of local historians, preservationists, and interested community members, we held community information-gathering days at the East Tennessee History Center, Ijams Nature Center, and Friendsville City Hall. We interviewed people who had once worked for the marble companies or whose relatives had. The various connections began to reveal both specific events and more general effects of the marble industry involving communities, individuals, and neighborhoods. A Tennessee Pink Marble Trail has since been developed for Knoxville.

South Knoxville Marble House.

South Knoxville Marble House.

From my research, I learned that the property deeds of someone who lives on land that was once a quarry might contain references to contiguous properties, lending institutions, wills, and even a lawsuit over a failed partnership between a quarry man and a banker. (The depositions show that they had hoped to attract outside investors and possibly even offer shares to Wall Street.)

Knowing whose hands actually touched the marble leads us more deeply into the history of the marble industry in Tennessee. Recently, I was invited to speak at Belmont Mansion’s 3rd Annual Decorative Arts Symposium. Objects in historic houses are usually thought to furnish evidence of the taste of their inhabitants. But perhaps it was local house builders who decided on similar Tennessee “cedar”-colored mantle pieces out of convenience, since the interiors of Tennessee’s State Capitol (which also featured brown variegated marble) were being sourced in Knoxville and furnished by a Nashville marble company.

Mantels at Belmont Mansion, Nashville, left (courtesy of Belmont Mansion), and the Mabry Hazen House, Knoxville, right

Mantels at Belmont Mansion, Nashville, left (courtesy of Belmont Mansion), and the Mabry Hazen House, Knoxville, right.

More research beckons. Who were the quarry men? The expert stonesetters? The carvers and other artisans who knew how to get the best out of the material? A piece of East Tennessee-made furniture in the Tennessee State Museum collection, signed by  cabinetmaker Jeremiah Bond in Jonesborough, which features a custom-fitted Tennessee “cedar” top, opens the door just a crack wider to finding the answers to these questions. What other piece might he have made, and from whom he did he obtain the finished marble top? Continuing this research at the local level promises exciting answers, as well as encounters with fascinating individuals, both historic and contemporary.

Table by Jeremiah Bond, Jonesborough, 1866, Tennessee State Museum Collection.

Table by Jeremiah Bond, Jonesborough, 1866. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum.

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Honoring the Dead, Anchoring the Living: The Unexpected Histories of African American Funeral Homes in Tennessee

By Brad Miller, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

While I was searching for a thesis topic that combined my interests in African American history and the built environment, Dr. Van West suggested that I look at African American funeral homes in Tennessee. The Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) has long partnered with African American communities across the state to interpret their rich pasts, but funeral homes had never been at the center of these studies. I was honestly creeped out by the prospect of studying buildings that solely existed for the care of the dead. Sure, I have always been a fan of historic cemeteries, but they convey a much different, more natural atmosphere. After stubbornly searching for other topics last summer, I wound up back with African American funeral homes and have realized they are keys to one of the most fascinating aspects of the African American experience from Reconstruction to the present.

G.W. Franklin Undertaker in Chattanooga, Tennessee, circa 1890s. One of the many images W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway used for the

G.W. Franklin, undertaker, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, circa 1890s. One of the many images W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway used for the “American Negro Exhibit” at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

African Americans had achieved freedom in the Civil War and were discovering ways to express their newly acquired citizenship. Caring for the dead became one aspect of emerging African American communities that were striving for autonomy with the growth of their own churches, social organizations, and businesses. A modern funeral industry emerged in the 1880s, which replaced the care and burial of the deceased by community-based burial societies. These early professional undertakers embalmed and transported bodies, arranged funeral services, and sold coffins.

Jarnigan & Son Undertakers (now Jarnigan & Sons Mortuary) in Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1880s-1890s. Courtesy of Walker Library.

Jarnigan & Son Undertakers (now Jarnigan & Sons Mortuary) in Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1880s-1890s. Courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, via “Trials and Triumphs: Tennesseans Search for Citizenship, Community, and Opportunity” (www.mtsu.edu/trialsandtriumphs).

As the era of Jim Crow gradually took hold following Reconstruction, death care became a strongly segregated business. African American funeral homes emerged as the center for a particularly racialized death defined by increased racial violence and inadequate resources for health care. The separate customer base provided economic stability, which allowed funeral professionals to invest in their communities and rise up as civic leaders. For example, undertaker Preston Taylor had purchased land for Greenwood Cemetery and Park by 1905 to serve the African American community of Nashville for proper burial and a space for recreation free of racial restrictions. A.G. Gaston ran a funeral home and insurance business in Alabama that helped fund the modern civil rights movement and bail Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail.

A.N. Johnson Undertaking Co. advertisement in the Nashville Globe, December 21, 1917. The ad emphasizes the growing to need to have all the goods and services under one roof. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A.N. Johnson Undertaking Co. advertisement in the Nashville Globe, December 21, 1917. The ad emphasizes the growing need to have all the goods and services under one roof. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I was able to start identifying and assessing historic African American funeral homes in Tennessee through other projects with the CHP during the school year. I began to understand that these buildings were critical anchors in the community, just like the social, economic, and political leadership of their owners. Funeral homes were typically located near churches (historic centers of the black community), along the border with the white community, and served as hubs of community activity.

1924 Sanborn Map of Murfreesboro, depicting the original location of Scales & Sons Funeral Home (fourth building up from the bottom left).

1924 Sanborn Map of Murfreesboro, depicting the original location of Scales & Sons Funeral Home (fourth building up from the bottom left).

Just down the road from the CHP in Murfreesboro is Scales & Sons Funeral Home, founded by Preston H. Scales in 1916 in the African American business district on South Maple Street off the square. These businesses were physical liaisons with the white-dominated square. Scales & Sons soon moved to East State Street and became a center of the growing African American neighborhood southeast of the square. Preston’s son, Robert, ran the business from this location and later became the city’s first African American city councilman.

Front facade of the current Scales & Sons Funeral Home on East State Street.

Front facade of the current Scales & Sons Funeral Home on East State Street in Murfreesboro.

While working on an African American heritage driving tour in Maury County, I connected with Mrs. Jo Ann McClellan of the Maury County African American Heritage Society. I discovered that there are currently four African American-owned funeral homes in the county. Another, Morton & Sons, is no longer in business but has a particularly interesting past. James M. Morton founded Morton & Sons Funeral Home in 1891 and quickly became a pillar of the community. The business was strategically located next to the First Baptist Church and a congregation full of possible customers. The original building, which mostly remains today, also served as a rallying point for African Americans during the 1946 Columbia race riot.

Left, Mrs. A.J. Morton, Funeral Director and Embalmer (Courtesy of Maury County Archives); right, the Morton & Sons funeral home went out of business in the mid-1990s., and the building was vacant in 2014.

Left, Mrs. A.J. Morton, Funeral Director and Embalmer (Courtesy of Maury County Archives); right, the Morton & Sons funeral home went out of business in the mid-1990s, and the building was vacant in 2014.

V.K. Ryan & Sons Funeral Home is another important Columbia institution, which has served as a hub of social and economic activity since 1938. The Ryan family lived upstairs well into the 1960s, while the first floor served as a space for the funeral business and a gathering place for a local fraternal lodge. The Ryans owned a filling station to the left of the house, where they also operated a café, barber shop, and cab company. The concentration of businesses, which would have doubled as places of daily social interaction, reveals the restrictive racial space in Columbia and the solidarity cultivated by African Americans in physically separate locations.

V.K. Ryan & Sons has remained in the same building since 1939.

V.K. Ryan & Sons has remained in the same building since 1939.

Through my work I have gained a huge respect for African American funeral professionals as men and women who answered the call for both the living and dead members of their communities. Many African American funeral homes across the United States remain in the family, with some businesses spanning over a century. Large international funeral companies and the declining racial divide that once guaranteed a separate customer base have led to the decline of many of these businesses. Funeral homes are often on the margins of preservationists’ minds because they are easily overlooked buildings that have become a natural part of our built environment. Demolition has already begun taking these invaluable historic resources and business anchors of African American communities.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be making my way around Tennessee to capture images of these buildings and connect with business owners and community members. I can be contacted via e-mail at brm4m@mtmail.mtsu.edu if you have any information regarding African American funeral homes in Tennessee or wish to find out more.

See Also:

Historian Suzanne Smith talks about her book To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (2010), which traces the importance of death and freedom in African American culture.

Homegoings, a PBS documentary.

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Historic Preservation in Italy and the United States

By Blake Cantrell, Intern

Hello, everyone! My name is Blake Cantrell, and I’m at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) completing an internship for the month of June. I’m a Master’s student at the American University of Rome, where I’m studying sustainable cultural heritage. What is sustainable cultural heritage, you ask? Luckily, I can explain what it means! It’s the recognition that the past has left a legacy–both good and bad–and the understanding that if that legacy is lost, it can’t be replaced. My course teaches us how to preserve these legacies indefinitely; they are people’s stories, and when they’re gone, that’s the end. It’s very similar to the work going on at the CHP here at MTSU.

For decades, arguably even centuries, “cultural heritage” has meant grand homes, palaces, castles, and other monuments of centuries past. If it took years to build and was made from stone or brick, it was probably considered a sight worth seeing, a story worth knowing about. Nowadays, the definition of heritage is expanding far beyond these elite structures to include the stories of people who have been left out of the grand histories.

The palaces of the elite and ruling classes are considered cultural heritage and are on most tourists’ “can’t miss” lists. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Courtesy of Norbert Nagel, Wikimedia Commons.

The palaces of the elite and ruling classes are considered cultural heritage and are on most tourists’ “can’t miss” lists. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Courtesy of Norbert Nagel, Wikimedia Commons.

These days, there’s an expanding interest in learning about less-well-known places and cultures, as evidenced by the growing number of people who are traveling internationally to non-traditional destinations like Africa, South America, and even former Soviet Bloc countries, looking for a great experience that’s easier on the pocketbook.

Different places have different histories that make up everything from the landscape to the social fabric. Living in Rome, I’ve been able to see firsthand the differences between the ways that Italians manage their heritage and the ways that Americans oversee theirs. One of the largest differences is monetary. Though America’s vaults aren’t brimming with extra cash to spend on preservation projects, there are a number of successful government programs that manage a great deal of our heritage. For instance, the National Park Service oversees both the natural landscapes of our national parks, as well as designated historic sites across the country.

Italy’s organizations are similar. Many cultural programs are also governmental, like Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Goods, Activities, and Tourism. Unlike Italy, the United States has no Ministry of Culture. The problem in Italy is that with the economic downturn, the Italians have drastically reduced funding for culture in spite of the fact that tourism is one of the country’s strongest economic drivers. Italian cultural administrators, known as Sovrintendente, are responsible only for safeguarding their sites, nothing more. As a result, many of Italy’s monumental and archaeological sites are left completely untouched. The shortage of government funds has led some Italian business leaders to take charge and personally fund restoration projects in Rome. Diego Della Valle, chairman of the Italian luxury fashion house Tod’s, personally donated 25 million euros to clean and restore the Colosseum. This is the largest privately funded project for heritage in Italy.

Inside the Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

All this cleaning and restoration isn’t making everyone happy. Fendi, another Italian luxury-goods brand, donated 2 million euros to restore the Trevi fountain. I’ve spoken to a tourist moved to tears not by the beauty of the Trevi, but from the distress of seeing the waterless fountain covered in scaffolding. Fendi has also funded the restoration of a much smaller and less-well-known project of four small fountains near the Quirinal Palace, the residence of the President of the Republic of Italy. These privately funded projects have been lifesavers for Italy’s cultural heritage during this time of economic austerity.

The Trevi Fountain under restoration. Courtesy of Cezar Suceveanu, Wikimedia.

The Trevi Fountain under restoration. Courtesy of Cezar Suceveanu, Wikimedia.

Beyond these high-profile ‘adoptions’ of cultural attractions in Italy, perhaps the most important difference between heritage management and interpretation in Rome and in the United States seems to be the depth of multi-layered histories told from different perspectives, which isn’t so common in Italy. Tourism in Italy seems to be more about ‘seeing’ than ‘understanding.’ Americans, especially those of us who visit Italy for the first time, step off the plane imagining Rome as the city we’ve seen on film, especially Gladiator, and are looking for an uninterruptedly cinematic cityscape.

For the tourist only spending a few days at most in the city, there is scarcely enough time to see the major attractions; forget about learning much about them. That has to be done on the visitor’s own time, beyond structured tours. Only by digging will you find something controversial, something unexpected.

How did it come to be this way? An essential aspect of Italian culture is showing “la bella figura,” or the beautiful figure, presenting only the best outwardly in appearance and behavior. Italy tries to do the same in its heritage by only showing the best and minimizing the parts that show “la brutta figura,” the ugly figure. America is now more willing to reflect on uncomfortable aspects of its history. For Italians, it’s still about showing the best face possible to the outside world and keeping the other bits out of sight and out of mind.

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When Slaves and Slaveholders Were Buried Together

By Dr. Stacey Graham, CHP Research Professor

One of the very first projects I tackled when I came to work for the Center for Historic Preservation in 2007 involved the Buckley Cemetery in rural West Tennessee. Sandra Arnold, a descendant of people once enslaved at the Buckley plantation, met me and then-fieldwork coordinator Elizabeth Moore Humphreys at the site, which is in Henderson County, near the Chester County line. Sandra then introduced us to Elsie Mae Harmon Frye, her great-aunt, whose parents are both buried in the cemetery. Mrs. Frye’s father, Ben Harmon, had been enslaved at the neighboring Harmon plantation and came to work at the Buckley plantation after the Civil War, where he married Ethel Buckley, whose parents were former slaves of the Buckleys. The story I heard from Mrs. Frye, and then from descendants of the white Buckleys, was of a place where blacks and whites lived in community (however unequal the relationships in that community may have been). The only site that documents this community today is the Buckley Cemetery.

The Buckley Cemetery faces west, with the burials following a traditional east-west orientation.

The Buckley Cemetery faces west, with the burials following a traditional east-west orientation.

The site is spectacularly located between a dry creek bed and a vast cotton field, at the edge of a dirt road. When you’re approaching the cemetery, you can see right away the stately tombstones of the white Buckleys, with the earliest dating to 1840. If you look further into the cemetery, you see another grouping of tombstones set back from the road. These are smaller and flatter, more in keeping with styles common to late-19th-/early- 20th-century African American cemeteries in Tennessee. This is where Ben and Ethel Harmon are buried, and, now, also Elsie Mae Frye (who lived to 101!). Between this section of the cemetery and the section with the more prominent markers, there is a middle ground, full of grave depressions. These are the slave burials, right next to the graves of the slaveholders.

Elsie Mae Harmon Frye has, since this photograph was taken, been laid to rest beside her parents, Ben and Ethel Buckley Harmon.

Elsie Mae Harmon Frye has, since this photograph was taken, been laid to rest beside her parents, Ben and Ethel Buckley Harmon.

This pattern of burial struck me as significant. Most slaves across the South were buried in separate slave cemeteries, which were located in marginal areas on plantations. However, once I began to look for cemeteries where blacks and whites were buried together before the end of slavery, I found that this practice was not at all uncommon. Many enslaved people were buried near the white residents of the plantation. Therefore, these cemeteries are not just private family graveyards for the white family members; rather, they are the burial grounds of a larger community of people who lived and worked on a plantation. That is why I call them plantation community cemeteries.

: About forty ground depressions mark the slave graves between the white family section and the post-emancipation black family area of the cemetery.

: About forty ground depressions mark the slave graves between the white family section and the post-emancipation black family area of the cemetery.

Through the economic system of slavery, blacks and whites were always interacting with each other. Even though free whites and enslaved African Americans couldn’t have been farther from each other in the social hierarchy, they nevertheless often lived and worked in close physical proximity. Whites and blacks sharing close physical proximity in death should actually come as no surprise. This closeness can be seen in certain burial arrangements, as in Buckley Cemetery where the slave graves are right beside those of the slaveholder burial places.

The slave graves mark the true center of the cemetery, with the post-emancipation black section on the far left and the pre- and post-Civil War white section on the right.

The slave graves mark the true center of the cemetery, with the post-emancipation black section on the far left and the pre- and post-Civil War white section on the right.

Today, descendants of both white and enslaved Buckleys take care of the cemetery of their ancestors. In the 2000s, a metal arch was installed in the center of the cemetery, emphasizing the belief that the unmarked slave graves and the distant post-emancipation black graves are just as much a part of the Buckley “family” as the markers for the white descendants. The cemetery holds special significance for Sandra Arnold, who was inspired by the story of her ancestors to found the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans, hosted by Fordham University.

If you’re interested in learning more about this type of cemetery, you can read my article, “Plantation Community Cemeteries: Reading Black and White Relationships in the Landscape,” which just came out in the journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, Markers XXX (2015). Also, if you know of a cemetery that might fit this type, please e-mail me, because I’d love to hear about it!

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Searching for Communities in Tennessee: Fort Cooper and Hortense

By Leigh Ann Gardner, Interpretive Specialist, Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area

On occasion at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP), we find opportunities to hit the road and conduct field surveys of sites across the state. In the spring of 2014, Dr. Carroll Van West, graduate research assistant Torren Gatson, and I headed west from Murfreesboro in an attempt to locate two historic African American communities. We were following a lead from articles in the Nashville Globe about Hortense, a community in Dickson County, and hoping that remnants of the town remained. We also sought to document Fort Cooper, a Reconstruction-era African American community in rural Hickman County. After a few false turns (I do not possess the best navigational or spatial senses), we were able to find what remains of these two interesting communities.

Fort Cooper derives its name from a family that lived in the area between 1810 and 1815. It was not until after the Civil War that the area became the site of an African American settlement. The Columbia, Tennessee, Herald and Mail described the community in an 1877 article: “This valley was a dense forest until about five years ago, when a colony of negroes bought the land . . . They have erected very comfortable houses–very neat and tidy . . . .” A History of Hickman County, published in 1900 and written by W. Jerome Spence and David Spence, also included information about the community, naming Nathan George, a former slave of Hezekiah George, as the founder.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) map showing the approximate location of Fort Cooper.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) map showing the approximate location of Fort Cooper.

Former slave Nathan George went on to donate land for a log church and a school. Originally known as George’s Chapel Church of Christ, Fort Cooper Church of Christ is still in existence. The log school no longer stands on the landscape, replaced in the twentieth century by a building clearly derived from the Common School Plans of the Rosenwald Fund. We know that a school existed in the community as early as 1913 because an article in the Nashville Globe on December 5, 1913, described the school’s Thanksgiving services and named the principal of the school as Prof. W.S. Walker. Although classes have not been held in the school for decades, the building remains, with two classrooms and a basement that likely housed a cafeteria. An intriguing feature of the school is that a small community burial ground, known as the Fort Cooper Training School Cemetery, is located at the school. Most of marked burials date from later in the twentieth century.

The community also has a second cemetery, located at the top of a hill near the Fort Cooper Church of Christ. This cemetery is abandoned and largely overgrown. However, yucca plants (often associated with African American burials) and buttercups surround several of the gravesites. In addition to the marked burials, there are a number of unmarked depressions indicating burial locations.

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I first learned about Hortense while researching African American lodges in the Nashville Globe. The November 25, 1910, issue ran an article about the community on the first page, with a headline that read, “Hortense: A Thriving Negro Settlement in Dickson County.” The article described the town as “a wealthy Negro settlement . . . The population in the immediate vicinity is entirely colored, who own their own farms.” Situated on the Clarksville Mineral Branch of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, Hortense in 1910 consisted of one church, a school, a Masonic hall under construction, and a general store.

Looking more deeply, I found a reference to the town in John Baker’s The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation (2009). (If you have not read Baker’s riveting work about tracing his ancestors who were enslaved on the large Wessyngton Plantation in Robertson County, I highly recommend it.) Members of Baker’s family were early settlers of Hortense, which drew many residents from Montgomery County. After reading several articles in the Globe and Baker’s account, I wanted to see what remained of this once-thriving community.

USGS map showing the approximate location of Hortense.

USGS map showing the approximate location of Hortense.

What remains is very little. The train depot, the school, the store, and the Masonic Hall no longer exist on the landscape. A thesis written by Beatrice Pendergrass in 1951 described the school and community: “This community was once thickly populated with Negroes, but in recent years has become sparsely settled. As a result, this school was consolidated in 1945.” All we found in the spring of 2014 was a church and a cemetery.

Mount Olive Hortense Church, a concrete block building with a gable front and small steeple, remains. The congregation dates to at least 1911, when it hosted a cake-cutting contest. The cemetery lies behind the church and is well-maintained. A number of veterans, particularly individuals who served in World War I, are buried there. One grave I saw belonged to Boyd Washington, a son of Foster Washington, whom Baker described as moving to Dickson County in 1910.

Despite some of the mishaps that took place that day, such as when I forgot the location of Fort Cooper School in relation to the church or when we had to hike up a steep hill to Fort Cooper Cemetery in order to get a cell signal, it was an excellent day of field work. It reinforced the importance of documenting these communities. Many of these rural African American communities are quickly vanishing, with only sparse documentary evidence surviving. Seeing the churches, cemeteries, schools, and geography of these once-vibrant places gives us a better understanding of the communities themselves.

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See Also:

“Hortense: A Thriving Negro Settlement in Dickson County,” Nashville Globe, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86064259/1910-11-25/ed-1/seq-1/

“Maury Anglers Angling in Hickman County,” Herald and Mail (Columbia, TN), http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053406/1877-04-27/ed-1/seq-3/

A History of Hickman County, Tennessee (available on Google Books), https://books.google.com/books?id=sIE7AQAAMAAJ&dq=history%20of%20hickman%20county&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q=history%20of%20hickman%20county&f=false

John F. Baker, Jr., The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation (2009).

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