Remembering the 'slaves of the Corporation' — the people the city of Nashville bought and owned 

When We Were Slaveowners

When We Were Slaveowners

Allen came to Nashville from Virginia when he was 14. He was slight — slender in body and, at 4 foot 10, not yet fully grown. He had a large scar on his jaw, on the left side. That could have come from anything, I suppose. Fourteen is ninth grade, maybe eighth — not that Allen went to school, but you know boys that age. They roughhouse. They jump out of barns and off of walls. Accidents happen, even terrible ones. Boys get broken. They have scars. It's possible no one intentionally did that to Allen's face. It's possible.

But Allen's back? It was, according to witnesses, "much scarred with the whip." Already. When he got here. When he was so young and small. Who would purchase a child — a child who arrived bearing the beatings and torments of his last owner?

We did. We, the city of Nashville, paid $350 for Allen. We owned him.

Allen wasn't the only slave we owned, though it's hard to get a clear picture of what our stake in this nightmare institution was. Bobby Lovett, in his book The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930, says we owned 60 slaves over the years, used mainly to keep our streets clean and in good repair.

But the records going back that far aren't great. Considering why we bought Allen — and considering men like John, another slave who was owned by William Shipp but employed by the city — it's likely the number of slaves we owned and rented rose and fell depending on the size of the public works projects we had going at any given moment.

So, yes, we had a reason we purchased Allen. We needed water. In the winter and spring of 1831, the city gave William Ramsey Jr. $12,000 (in today's money, more than $300,000) to buy people to lay our new cast-iron water lines. He came back with 22 men ranging in age from our Allen, 14, to Lewis, 46, along with two women, ages unknown, all from Virginia or Maryland.

And they put in the water line. It was brutal work the city had failed at once before, because of the limestone beneath the city. These men succeeded, beyond the city fathers' wildest imaginings. According to the water department, we still drink out of their almost 200-year-old pipes — 300 feet of them underlying Church Street from Second to Third Avenue North; 3,645 feet from the old reservoir (up on Rolling Mill Hill) to Academy Place, Lindsley, Second Avenue South and Ash Street; and some unknown number of feet under Fifth Avenue South from Ash Street to Church Street.

We know what it cost us. We don't know what it cost them. The records for slave burials at the Nashville City Cemetery don't start until 1846. (If there are earlier city records showing who died or was sold off, I couldn't find them.) But the cemetery records show a few names in common with the list of slaves bought for the water project. We bought a man named Anthony in 1831, and "Anthony, slave of the Corporation" died June 15, 1849, and is buried in the city cemetery. We bought Frank, who said he was 45 (though his bill of sale said 34) in 1831, and there's a Frank who was a slave of the Corporation who died June 18, 1849, and is in the city cemetery. Was the 40-year-old Lucy who died in 1852 the Lucinda who was bought by Ramsey?

The city cemetery records also provide evidence that our slave ownership was ongoing, throughout the time it was legal. For example, a city-owned slave named Henry, 24, died in 1855, almost a quarter-century after the '31 project.

I would like to tell you the names of those we owned, the details we know of these "slaves of the Corporation." But I couldn't find them all. It's a project for a better historian than I. But it's a project that should be done, with the information kept accessible to the general public. What we owe Allen — a childhood, a mother to comfort him when he was hurt or afraid, a father to go to for advice, a community who watched out for him, an education, a chance to fall in love and get legally married, his freedom — we can't give him.

Still, we are his people now, the only people he has. And if we lay out the breadcrumbs — he was owned by Stefen Brady of Campbell County, Va., and he was raised by Barton Robertson, of Rockbridge Country, Va., and he was born in 1817 — and some relative is looking for him, maybe they'll be able to find him and claim him.

But it's not likely. We're it.

If there's anyone to care that this child lived and died, it is we, the city of Nashville. The people who did him so wrong. We still benefit from his stolen life and the stolen lives of our other slaves. At the very least, there should be some public acknowledgement of that.

While you consider that, enjoy a glass of water.

On Allen.


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