The Corporation

I had heard that Nashville owned slaves, but the story I was told was that it was just a small group of men who installed the water lines and did some maintenance on the roads and then Nashville got out of the slave-owning business by 1830. George Zepp’s excellent book suggested that wasn’t the whole story. But I kind of didn’t really let that sink in. But then there’s all this Ani DiFranco nonsense and, while I agree that there’s no need for social-justice song-writing retreats at plantations that gloss over their history and are owned by rightwing assholes, I kept thinking about Nashville–which doesn’t really acknowledge that it was even in the slave-owning business, that the water you’re drinking when you stay downtown is because of those men. And we’re governed by right-wing assholes. Sure, not at the city level, but at the state.

And I’m not trying to say, then, that it’s too hard to deal with slavery so it’s fine if Ani DiFranco wants to fart around at a plantation all weekend. I’m trying to come at it from the other direction–what she intended to do was obviously bullshit. But social justice icons play Nashville all the time. Hell, some of them play the Ryman, with its Confederate balcony. I don’t want to ask them not to play Nashville, to not play the Ryman. I don’t have a good reason why Nottoway is off-limits, but Nashville is okay. I just, honestly, want it to be that way.

But I also wonder why we don’t ask these big names, the ones who are devoted to social justice, to bring pressure on the city to acknowledge its direct complicity in slavery? Not just as a place where slaveowners lived, but as a slaveowner itself.

The Nashville City Cemetery shows that the story I was told about slavery in Nashville is a lie. I wrote them and asked them who “the corporation” was and the woman who wrote me back knew because The Corporation had owned the Cemetery back then–because it was the city. And so there are Nashville’s slaves, dying in the cholera epidemic in ’49 and later. And there’s a woman. Look at how young they are.

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8 thoughts on “The Corporation

  1. There is a great deal of truth and reconciliation that needs to happen with America’s history of slavery. So many white people don’t want to think about it, want to believe it doesn’t affect the present so it’s ok to forget it. Black folks don’t have that luxury, but live in a country that doesn’t want to admit that they still live with the consequences of slavery every day, that our whole country was built on it.

    It’s probably impossible to tease out all the threads of daily life that are informed by slavery/racism, all the little privileges and structures that come from that history. The plantations are just the most egregious, but you’re right; what major city didn’t benefit at least partly on the slave trade? We couldn’t possibly destroy it all. But I wish we would talk about it, acknowledge it, and honor the suffering that happened.

  2. So what did the remainder of retained slaves do? Road and water line work? Grave digging? Cleaning public buildings? Or do we really know?

  3. Bridgett, I don’t know and Google is not forthcoming. I am growing more concerned that no one except George Zepp ever even bothered to look for these people. I mean, I heard about it, so there’s some knowledge, but I mean, maybe only Zepp ever went and looked in the archives to see what he could see? Which, good for him, but damn, this would seem to be the kind of thing that could benefit from having a scholar dig into.

    I’m going to try to find some time this week to go to the Metro archives and see what they have. Presumably, since taxpayer money was being used to pay for these people, there should be accounting records that would tell us something of their lives.

  4. Did Nashville build a prison during this period? There was a rage for it in the 1820s-1850s and in other places, the walls were often built by African-Americans (some slave, some whose status was less clear).

  5. We had a prison built during that time–kind of between the hospital and the Hustler store. But I’m not sure how long it took them to put it up. I’m just saying, if prison-building was all we were using them for, we shouldn’t have had them as long as we did.

    I see that Bobby Lovett addresses this, but the relevant pages aren’t on Google Books. But he indicates that, at least early on, Nashville was buying slaves known to be problematic. I think the work Nashville wanted out of them was supposed to either break them (thus making them suitable for later sale) or kill them.

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