Well before visitors get their first glimpse of the white history of Belle Meade Plantation — the magnificent mansion visible from the narrow drive just off Harding Road — they can see hard evidence of the same grounds' African-American history. Stacked-stone walls — frequently called "slave walls" in a nod to those who built them — mark the perimeter of the property that at 5,400 acres was once one of the largest plantations in Nashville, and among the most highly regarded thoroughbred horse operations in the country.
For several decades, the black experience on Belle Meade Plantation was relegated to a stature similar to what it was centuries ago. In 1953, the mansion, several outbuildings and the remaining 30 acres of land were purchased by the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities and restored and reinvented as a museum and event space. Yet despite their contributions to supporting and maintaining the lifestyle of their white owners — involuntary as they were — little was known of the 136 male, female and child slaves living on the plantation prior to and in 1865 when the war ended.
Historic sites across the South have wrestled with how to represent slavery, the ugly, inescapable fact underlying idyllic visions of hoop-skirted balls and magnolia-scented socials. The issue has intensified in recent years amid arguments over reparations, and whether the popularity of former plantations as sites for weddings and galas amounts to a whitewashing of history. For decades, many sites either elided their own participation in slavery or glossed it over beyond recognition. As recently as 15 years ago at Belle Meade Plantation, some museum docents used the term "servant" to describe slaves to visitors.
That doesn't surprise Belle Meade Plantation historian Jenny Lamb, who came on staff in 2000, or curator John Lamb, who was hired the next year.
"For a long time, Belle Meade Plantation was a tour of a lovely home that was restored to post-Antebellum days, and a property that was popular for weddings and fancy events," Jenny Lamb says. "Certain pieces of the history were not spoken of or were glossed over."
In the past 10 years, however, she says there's been "a major shift" in that outlook. Emboldened, Lamb says, by a board of directors committed to making the plantation an educational resource as well as an attraction, Belle Meade Plantation is starting to tell the whole story.
"In the past people may have been concerned about upsetting people or making them uncomfortable," John Lamb says. "It is upsetting and uncomfortable, to say the least. But it is an egregious error not to tell it." The board, he says approvingly, "is not afraid of the truth."
There is no better illustration of the broad spectrum of voices on the board than current members Ridley Wills III and Luvenia Butler. Wills' great-great-great-grandparents were the Hardings, the family who founded the plantation in 1807. Butler's great-grandmother, Jenny White, was enslaved there.
"So many people living in Nashville today do not know the story of the plantation," says Butler, director of the office of Title VI for the Tennessee Department of Health. "It doesn't matter what culture they come from — black or white, native or newcomer, they don't know. But especially African-Americans here don't know it, and that's too bad."
"It is absolutely critical that we do this," Wills says. "For too long, the story of Belle Meade Plantation has been segregated — the master and the slave, white and black. Here is the mansion on the hill, and over there is a slave cabin. The slave cabin is not the whole story. There is a big story to tell."
To that end, the Lambs and their staff have embarked on an ambitious program called "Journey to Jubilee: Uncovering the African-American Story." Modeled after the compelling 20-year project done by staff at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello called "Getting Word," "Journey" — expected to take three to five years — will dig deep to uncover the stories of the slave population who lived at Belle Meade. The goal is to find their descendants to help identify the African-Americans in the extensive photo collection, to record their stories for an oral history, and to create a website that will tell that story. With diligence and luck, the resulting resource center will in turn generate more information and history.
"It would be so exciting to have a resource there of an in-depth history of the African-American population that lived there, to identify ... those faces in the photos that we don't know," Butler says. "In doing genealogy, African-Americans who are seeking to find our ancestors back before the Civil War [find] they are listed with the cattle. They are listed as property. They list them as inventory. It's very hard to find African-American genealogy."
"What we have now is a white point of view," Jenny Lamb says. "We have hundreds of photographs, but the African-Americans in the photos are identified only as 'groomsman William' or 'maid Ida.' We want to know who they are and what their stories were. The point of this project is to find more people, tell more stories and find a deeper, broader understanding of life here. It really hasn't been done."
One of the better-known histories, and one Jenny Lamb finds particularly compelling, is that of Susanna McGavock Carter. The daughter of a white Englishman and a mother who was part American Indian, part African-American, she was born free. But when her father died, custody of her and her sisters was illegally transferred to Randal McGavock, who took them into slavery on his Carnton Plantation in Franklin.
"Overnight, she went being free to being a slave," Lamb says. "When McGavock's daughter Elizabeth married John Harding's son William Giles Harding in 1840, Susanna was separated from her sisters as a young girl and came with Elizabeth as part of her dowry. She grew up on the plantation, married another slave named Isaac Carter, a stonemason. They had children here who were born into slavery. After the war, they moved off of the plantation, though she came back to work here, as well as other places."
It was Susanna Carter's great-niece, Fisk University graduate Emma Bragg, who wrote and published a book about Susanna's life. The Lambs have a rare copy of the book Susanna McGavock Carter: The Trusted Housekeeper Slave of William Giles Harding of Nashville's Belle Meade Plantation, which is out of print. Bragg died about 10 years ago — but not before recording some of her stories, which are being transcribed as part of "Journey to Jubilee."
Already the project is unearthing details about the interactions of the property's black and white residents, such as labor arrangements. After the Civil War ended, 72 workers chose to take employment with William Harding, though most moved off the property. Those who stayed remained in the slave cabins, part of their compensation. Harding — who was very methodical about his business — crafted a contract of "18 Rules & Regulations" that had to be signed by all who remained living on the property. Deductions were taken for breaking those rules. The highest levy — not less than $5 — was extracted if "an employee or a member of his family pulls a rock out of the stone fences of the employer."
Which may at least partially explain the fences' endurance. One runs between the eastern border of the plantation and its neighbor, The Temple. Though none of the original structures remain, the Lambs believe the original slave cabins stood on what is now the Jewish temple's parking lot.
The slave cabin that is on the property is re-created from a structure moved from a farm in the Old Hickory area and faithful to what the staff knows from photographs and some written accounts in newspapers, which described them as duplexes with a central chimney. Each side — a single 15-by-15-foot room with wood plank walls and floors — held an entire family or household. There are two windows. One frames the slave wall; the other looks out on the mansion.
In coming months, the staff will install in one side an exhibit that will preview the "Journey to Jubilee" project. "Monticello was so inspiring to us," Jenny Lamb says. "To see the fruition of their 20-year project as we begin ours. We are so fortunate to be on the doorstep of this journey, to have the opportunity to tell these stories and be a resource for people looking for their own."
For Luvenia Butler, "Journey to Jubilee" embodies the tangled relationship that Belle Meade Plantation's African-American descendants have with the property — the knowledge that for many of their ancestors, despite the appalling institution that brought and kept them there, it was still a homeplace.
"Whenever I walk on the property, I look for the trees that are the largest, with big trunks, because I know they are the ones that are hundreds of years old," Butler says. "In particular, there is one in front of the winery and another one behind the mansion. I always touch those trees because they were there when my ancestors were there. I touch them and feel that I am touching my ancestors, they touched these same trees.
"They were shaded by those trees, during their lives that were so different. But really, it wasn't that long ago."
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