After tracking down the Benevolent Society #2 Cemetery, vice president of the Tennessee Geographic Information Council Sunny Fleming and I began wondering if there were any other important Nashville cemeteries that are missing and if we could use what we’d learned from finding the Benevolent cemetery in the searching.
The one that sprang to my mind immediately was the slave cemetery at The Hermitage. There surely was one, but no one knows where it is. It’s not been marked on maps. There’s no mention of its location in letters, and archaeological activity hasn’t uncovered any clues.
I asked around some, and the general consensus is that it was probably in a field at The Hermitage that at some point got plowed over. Except slave cemeteries were rarely given ground that could have been cultivated.
Sunny and I spent a lot of time looking at old maps and LiDAR data of The Hermitage, and there just wasn’t anything that immediately said, “Look here for a slave cemetery.”
But we now know quite a bit about where Black people went after the Civil War — they either stayed near where they’d been raised, moved into Nashville or left the state. We know that Benevolent societies sprang up in local communities to serve local needs. And one of the things that was very important for them was to secure burial grounds. Over and over, we see Benevolent societies purchasing land used as slave cemeteries for their cemeteries.
This makes sense. If you live near where, say, your mom and aunts and uncles were enslaved and you know where they were buried, of course you would take the opportunity to buy that land and continue family burials on it.
This means we know quite a bit about where to expect to find slave cemeteries in Davidson County, based on what we know about Benevolent cemeteries. They are usually very close to a main path through the old plantation, but out of eyeline of the big house, often at the back of the property. They are often on hillsides. The oldest graves are usually at the top of the hill with newer graves closer to the bottom. We should expect trees and vinca. And we can expect the families of the people in those cemeteries to be nearby or to have been nearby until the last generation or two.
I thought that if we could figure out where the people enslaved at The Hermitage had gone after emancipation, we might have a clue as to where to look for the slave cemetery. For instance, if everyone settled in Hopewell, we should be looking for a cemetery on the north side of The Hermitage. So I set out to see where people had settled at the end of slavery.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of information on Alfred — the man enslaved by Jackson who ended up being the caretaker of The Hermitage until his death in 1905 — and his family. Alfred’s Uncle Squire took the last name Hayes. Alfred’s wife Gracey and their two children took the last name Bradley. Some of Gracey’s siblings took the last name Ferguson. The Bradleys married into the Dodsons, and the Dodsons married into the Cockrills.
Here were some telling clues. Timothy Dodson had rented land from Andrew Jackson when he first moved to Tennessee. He later owned the plantation between The Hermitage and Cloverbottom on Lebanon Pike. Dodson and Jackson were good friends. Mark “Wool King of the World” Cockrill bought the thousand-acre Tulip Grove estate, which is right across the road from The Hermitage, from Andrew Jackson Donelson in 1854. Meaning that, if your last name is Cockrill and you’re Black and from Hermitage, it’s likely that your family was at Tulip Grove.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Alfred’s son Augustus Bradley married Kate Dodson after the Civil War. Gus, like many people in his family, lived a long, long time. He died in 1918, and his wife died in 1925. Meaning we have their death records. We know that Gus was living in the Tulip Grove area when he died. And we know many, if not all, of his children are buried in the Scott’s Hollow cemetery on Tulip Grove Road. It’s very, very likely that Gus and Kate are in that cemetery.
But that struck me as strange. Tulip Grove Road is as far east as you could get on the old plantation. Gus had been enslaved at The Hermitage, and Kate’s last name suggests her family was from west of The Hermitage. Finding Cockrills in this part of town is not surprising, but why was this couple here? Unless they were buried here because this was already their family burial ground.
In other words, could this have been the burial spot for slaves from The Hermitage and Tulip Grove, which then became the cemetery for their descendants?
We went to see what we could see.
The cemetery sits on the top and side of a steep hill. There’s a church, Scott’s Chapel, at the bottom of said hill. From the top of the hill you can see the Publix, and I’m very curious if, when the leaves are down in the fall, you can see to the old plantation houses. I think you could have when all that was between was fields. The cemetery, like the Bryanttown Cemetery, has a lot of old unmarked graves. Like, enough that it makes me suspect it could be two plantations’ worth of dead people.
The cemetery is just off Lebanon Pike, and at the back side of the old Tulip Grove property. And the land was owned by a Benevolent society (either #7 or #70, sources aren’t clear).
But y’all, the best part is that there were people in the church, painting and cleaning up, and we got to talk to them. They were Cockrills! Doyle, Jackie and Terri told us about their family and the history of the land as they knew it. The Benevolent lodge had been behind the church. The school had been up on the hill on a flattish spot before the steep incline of the cemetery. They used to have big family reunions, and the Cockrills and the Bradleys would play tug-of-war against each other. We learned that one elderly uncle knew where everyone — even the people in unmarked graves — was buried and could point you to where it was safe to dig fresh graves, but he had died and they were concerned about all the knowledge that had passed with him.
And then they asked us if we wanted to see the old schoolhouse. After they didn’t need a school anymore, the families had moved it from the hillside to behind the church where it served as the fellowship hall. So we were able to walk through a short hall and there we were, in a sunny one-room schoolhouse, with a kitchen. Back in the day, the chalkboards were lowered down over the kitchen passthroughs and then could be raised up at lunchtime.
I keep getting grief for writing so much about historical Black spaces, but damn it, these are good stories about how people survived under adverse, hostile conditions, how they took care of each other and formed sustaining bonds. I don’t know how you could stand next to a church the extended Cockrill and Bradley families constructed for themselves, near a school they built themselves, in the footprint of an old Benevolent lodge they constructed, in the shadow of their ancestors, and not think that this is a special spot, that it ought to be considered a Nashville treasure.
Whether or not this is where people from The Hermitage and Tulip Grove who died in slavery were buried, this is the spot where the people who survived The Hermitage and Tulip Grove built institutions that would sustain their families for generations.
It’s a spot we should all cherish.