The long, troubled road to freedom

Notes from a lecture by Bobby Lovett

The process under which African Americans in Tennessee transitioned from slave status to free status is very confusing. Many teachers are uncomfortable talking about the subject in class.
Dr. Bobby Lovett, a professor at Tennessee State University, has extensively researched the subject and has written books on the history of African Americans in Tennessee. Here are some of the points from a presentation he made to the Tennessee Council for Social Studies fall retreat in 2005:

<>Slaves in Virginia in 1862 PHOTO: Library of Congress</>

In 1860, blacks made up one quarter of Tennessee’s population. To put this in some context, today about 17 percent of the people in Tennessee are African American.

When the Civil War broke out there were 275,000 slaves in Tennessee — about 70 percent of them in West Tennessee, 20 percent in Middle Tennessee and 10 percent in East Tennessee. There were 7,300 free blacks. AMONG THE MOST PROMINENT WERE:

Only about 10 percent of slaves could read. But as best we can tell, about 50 percent of free blacks could read. Some of them had attended schools, such as the school for free blacks in Nashville that was created in Nashville in 1833 but was burned in a race riot in 1856. WASN’T A LAW PASSED MAKING IT A CRIME TO TEACH BLACKS TO READ AT SOME POINT?

<>A clipping from a Nashville newspaper in the 1850s</>
In the late 1850s the average cost of a “prime hand” slave was about $1,300. A well-connected white man could borrow this money from a brokerage business that you might find in Nashville of Memphis and pay the money back incrementally. However, at the time, most free Tennesseans earned less than $150 each year. So you didn’t own a slave unless you were wealthy. In fact, only 15 percent of the families in Tennessee owned slaves.
And what did slaves do? They produced cotton, corn, tobacco, iron and lumber. They were stone masons, brick makers and layers, carpenters, blacksmiths and shoe makers. They worked on riverboats and on iron foundry plantations. WASN’T THERE ONE IN PARTICULAR IN DICKSON COUNTY THAT HAD A HUGE NUMBER OF SLAVES ON IT??? They worked as house servants and barbers.

<>The tunnel through the Cumberland Plateau</>

Slaves also worked on monumental projects. Along with inmates from the state prison, they did much of the grunt work to build the State Capitol building in the 1850s, while other slaves dug the tunnel through the Cumberland Plateau necessary for the Nashville & Chattanooga Railway.

And now for some points related to the Civil War:

<>Re-enactors at the Tennessee History Festival

As the Union Army took over Tennessee, it had a problem because black slaves were turning up, sometimes needing protection and sometimes wanting to enlist. Finally, the army established contraband camps across Tennessee to house fugitive slaves. These camps had a tendency to be located in cities, and the location of these contraband camps dictates the location of many of Tennessee’s urban black neighborhoods. There was one in Nashville, for instance, called Fort Gilliam. Today Fisk University is located there. WHAT ABOUT THE ONE IN KNOXVILLE OR MEMPHIS?

During the war, African Americans (free and slave) built many things throughout Tennessee on behalf of the Union cause. African Americans were heavily involved in building a new rail line from Kingston Springs to Johnsonville, and many black soldiers guarded bridges along that line after it was completed. The defenses built by the Union Army to protect Nashville’s southern flank (including Fort Negley) were mainly built by black laborers.

<>Union re-enactors at Fort Pillow PHOTO: 54th Massachusetts regiment</>
There were large numbers of black soldiers in Union uniform at the battles of Fort Pillow in April 1864 and at Johnsonville in November 1864. And when the Confederate Army attacked Nashville in December 1864, many of the soldiers who repulsed the attack were African American.
African Americans who fought for the Union did so well aware of the fact that they might be executed by Confederates if they were taken prisoner. The best documented case of this was at Fort Pillow, often referred to as the “most controversial” battle of the Civil War.
At the beginning of the war there were very few armed black men in either the Union or Confederate armies. But that certainly changed as the war went on and blacks were freed. By the end of the war, about 40 percent of the Tennesseans fighting for the union were black. ISN’T THERE A QUOTE THAT HE HAS FROM A WOMAN IN MURFREESBORO WHO DESCRIBES THE IDEA OF SEEING ARMED BLACK MEN TOWARD THE END OF THE WAR???

As slaves freed themselves, many of them walked to the nearest city, and soon the black population of Tennessee’s cities swelled. In Nashville, for instance, the African-American population grew from less than 4,000 to about 12,000.

Finally, Dr. Lovett emphasizes this extremely important point about the freeing of the slaves, not just in Tennessee but all across America: It was a peaceful process. Despite the fears that many whites had at that time, there were no reported incidents of former slaves murdering their former masters.

For further reading, you might try The Life and Adventures of Nat Love. Love was born as a slave in Tennessee and after the Civil War he moved west to become a cowboy, as many African-American men did at that time.


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