There are times when one has to break traditions. I would much rather know well in advance when an overnight stay in an extant slave dwelling will occur. This allows me the time I need between stays to catch my breath, spend some time at home with the family and get the blog for the previous stay written. If we lived in a perfect world, that is how it would work.
My perfect world was interrupted when I got this email from Tonya Staggs, curator at Travellers Rest in Nashville, TN. In the email she raved about a new exhibit the site had just made available to the public that interprets those who were enslaved at Travellers Rest. She went on to ask, “when would be a good time that you could visit the site to see the exhibit and maybe do a sleepover and/or presentation?”
Well, it turned out that I had already booked a trip to Nashville because I was presenting at the National Conference of Public Historians. The only thing that I had not yet booked was my hotel room.
Last year, when I added Tennessee to the portfolio of the Slave Dwelling Project, it was a trip to Nashville and in three nights, I slept in slave cabins at Clover Bottom, Belle Meade Plantation and the Hermitage. My host, Dan Brown of the Tennessee Historical Commission, and I attempted a visit to Tavellers Rest but it was closed at the time.
According to its website, “In the late 18th and early 19th century, John Overton became one of Tennessee’s most influential citizens. During his lifetime he amassed a vast fortune, as well as gained the respect of businessmen and presidents. He was a Law Student, Tax Collector, Land Speculator, Tennessee Supreme Court Judge, Planter, Banker, Husband, Presidential Advisor to Andrew Jackson, and Co-founder of Memphis.”
Additionally and according to the website, “As with most of John Overton’s elite contemporaries, operating, his 2300-acre Travellers Rest plantation rounded out his varied business interests. The plantation primarily yielded tobacco and cotton, but Overton was especially interested in his fruit orchard. He cultivated peaches, apples, pears and grapes. Some of this fruit was distilled into brandy and wine. To plant and harvest these crops, Overton owned an average of 50 slaves. Among the slaves were also highly skilled craftsmen such as furniture makers and blacksmiths who were widely known for their products.”
The cabin is a two story brick structure. The exhibit, which is located in the slave cabin, is all that Tonya Staggs raved about and more. She gave me the tour and her passion for the role that she played in making it happen was evident. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for sites that not only conduct the research of the people who were enslaved there but put forth the resources to ensure their stories are not forgotten. The bottom floor of the cabin is adorned with looms and other items used for weaving. The upstairs was set up like a living space. The interpretive panels are tastefully affixed to the walls as if they were painted there. Images and items are attached that give the exhibit a two and three dimensional look. The names of the enslaved are incorporated into the exhibit which is very powerful (meaning THE ENSLAVED HAVE NAMES!)
My propensity to take photographs as soon as I arrive at a site paid off when after no less that one hour after my arrival it started to rain. From the time Tonya and I confirmed the sleepover would occur to the time that it actually happened was approximately one week. The steady downpour of rain did not do us any favors either. That is why I was impressed when nearly all of the seats that were put out for the planned public lecture were occupied. There was some diversity among the group to boot.
It is seldom that I get to spend nights in slave dwellings alone anymore. The impromptu manner of which this stay occurred dictated that this would be one of those rare nights. Because I travelled by air, my host provided all of the sleeping gear that I needed. Because the space is used as a museum, it had lighting and climate control. These accommodations provided me the opportunity to work on my computer which was great knowing that I had another overnight stay that coming weekend. The sounds from trains from a nearby transfer station, thunder and rain would persist throughout the night. It did not help that Tonya alerted me to the possibility of hobos. I woke up in a mood to write and got a lot done before I left the cabin.
Breakfast was delivered as promised and Lauren Batte, showed up to take me to her church where I could have a shower before she delivered me to the Sheraton Hotel for my presentation. Immediately, upon entering the hotel, I encountered Nicole Moore of Interpreting Slave Life. She presented at the First Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference which was held in Savannah, GA. This was a worthwhile encounter because for the price of buying her lunch, she became my ride to the airport. You can learn more about the amazing work that Nicole does by accessing her blog: http://www.interpretingslavelife.com/
At the conference, I was part of panel that included Celai Galen and James Quint of Historic Columbia in Columbia, SC. The session was titled: Inhabiting the Edge: Engaging Community History. It was described as follows: “How does occupying a place affect community and public historians’ understanding of place?” This structured conversation focuses on communities’ engagement with places they inhabit. Facilitated by staff from the Slave Dwelling Project and Historic Columbia, participants will consider the ways that places on the edge – like neglected rural buildings that once housed slaves, or poor urban 20th – century neighborhoods – can inspire community history.” The attendance was standing room only with at least two audience members who had shared an overnight sleepover in a slave dwelling with me.
Nathan Bedford Forrest
Anyone familiar with the history of Nathan Bedford knows that as a slave trader before the Civil War and as one of the inaugural members of the Ku Klux Klan, his relevance to the African American community is questionable to say the least. While on my way to the conference, I received the following message on my facebook page.
Stef Brake “I was in attendance last evening. As a distant relative to Nathan Bedford Forrest, your lecture truly opened my eyes and allowed me to continue reconciling that part of my family’s history. Beyond that, it was the most fascinating approach to race and American slavery I’ve yet seen. Thank you for your project, and I look forward to joining you in a dwelling the next time you’re in or near Nashville.”
Stef Brake’s message speaks highly of the power of place and the power of the Slave Dwelling Project. I am now looking forward to my return to Nashville and/or a creating a stay where Stef and others like her can spend the night in an extant slave dwelling. While the Ben Afflecks of the world are trying to conceal their ties to their slave holding Ancestors; while Starbuck executives are proposing having conversations about race, the Slave Dwelling Project is already getting on about the work of using these historic buildings as classrooms to bring together the most unlikely “bedfellows.”