The City of Brentwood Confuses Me

One of the ritzier suburbs of Nashville lies about halfway between the central city and Franklin to the south. This suburb, Brentwood, is filled with multimillion dollar McMansions and those houses are filled with a lot of rich, white Republicans*, many of whom will pay good money to have parties where they “make” a bunch of meals at once and the freeze the resulting bags of semi-self-prepared meals so that they can “cook” at home by taking their bags full of premeasured ingredients that they paid someone else to wash and chop and measure (but, in all fairness, that they mixed up) and putting them in the oven.

One wonders why housewives with giant kitchens need to pay someone to help them organize a bunch of friends getting together to fix some food, but I am not a rich housewife. Perhaps even rich housewives hate doing the dishes as much as I do.

But, this is not a post pondering the ways of people three social classes (or more) above me. This is about the slave cemetery on the old Midway Plantation grounds. Most of the land is now covered in McMansions, but the city has preserved the old slave cemetery, and put up a monument to the enslaved people who worked the land, some of whom are buried there.

I just want to say, after seeing the raw emotions surrounding the whole “Can we have the Confederate Flag at the Battle of Franklin commemoration?” fiasco, I don’t envy the person who had to come up with what to put on the monument. It can’t have been easy to find something that the least amount of folks would object to.

But still, I post that inscription here for your amusement and amazement:

The city of Brentwood restored this cemetery to honor the unsung heroes who came from Africa and labored on the Midway Plantation in the 1800’s.

They survived the horrors of the Middle Passage, endured the shackles of slavery, raised their children, honored their parents and worked hard to make America a better place.

We deeply appreciate their contributions to the world.

 I’m sorry.  I have to take a minute just to read through it again.

Where to start?  I take issue with the word “heroes,” not because I don’t think that what enslaved people went through wasn’t terrible and it certainly was something commendable to survive it.  But because they were just ordinary people.  White people didn’t enslave people vastly different than us, people who, because of their heroism, were better able to stand enslavement than we would have been.  We enslaved people just like us.  Often, we enslaved people who were by definition ‘us.’  Our blood relatives.  Our half-siblings, our nieces and nephews.  We did this to people who were our family.

Which brings me to point number two.  Very, very few, if any, of the people who were enslaved in Middle Tennessee came directly from Africa.  According to the woman I talked to at the Hermitage, most enslaved people of African descent were children and grandchildren of enslaved people**. 

And that middle paragraph?  Shoot, if one doesn’t want us to think too hard about the role of white people in slavery, one definitely shouldn’t have brought up the concept of “heroes” in the first place.  Once you suggest that there are heroes, it doesn’t take too savvy a reader to wonder about villains.  And yet, watch how that second paragraph just smoothly moves you from outrage to outrage to accomplishment without so much as a sideways glance at who put those stones in their pathway.

 And, shoot, by the time you get to “raised their children and honored their parents and worked hard to make America a better place” this could be any old ethnic group we’re talking about.  I mean, shoot, look at that agency.  Slaves were working hard to make America a better place.  That’s downright commendable.  Never mind that they were working hard so that they wouldn’t be sold off or killed.  No, this is a story of one ethnic group just like any other.

But here’s where I get stuck, right before the whole recasting of slaver labor as a mode of patriotic expression–“raised their children and honored their parents.”

What does that mean?

I mean, I know what it means on its surface, but what does it mean included on a memorial to the enslaved people at Midway Plantation?  I wonder in general what kind of story that marker’s supposed to be telling, but it’s specifically those two phrases that give me the most problem.  Is this an example of how they were heroic?  Or is it a challenge to some notion that slaves didn’t have any respect for familial bonds?  Is it as close as the city of Brentwood felt they could come to saying “They were good Christians (with following of the “honor thy mother and father” commandment and all)”?  Is it saying, “Unlike now, back then, black people took care of their kids and elders”?

Why, of all the things to single out that one might assume people would do anyway, did the city of Brentwood pick out these two? 





*To make a sweeping generalization.

**Which makes the continued discovery of cowrie shells at the Hermitage something of a mystery to the archaeologists.  Were they handed down or was there some kind of vast, if loosely organized, trading system among enslaved people, so that shells that came across the ocean with new arrivals could eventually find their way from the coasts this far inland?

20 thoughts on “The City of Brentwood Confuses Me

  1. What we (colonial/early republic historians) often find is that the cowrie and conch that we dig up from inland graves was placed there by someone in the 1920s-1960s, perhaps Garveyites or other pan-African memorialists honoring the ancestors. There are a bunch of African slaves that move up the Mississippi from the Caribbean in the wake of the Haitian Revolution and there are others who are shipped to the Gulf Coast after the Creek War (off the books people illegally smuggled) that could have made their way up to Nashville. But if I were betting, I’d bet on recent addition to the gravesite unless it was part of the adornment of the body itself. For people interested in the public history commemoration of slavery (trust me, Brentwood is bizarre but by no means atypical in its struggle to talk about the unspeakable), you should try James O and Lois Horton’s *Slavery and Public History* (2005).

  2. Oh, sorry, Bridgett, I should have been more clear about where they were finding the cowrie shells at the Hermitage. They’re finding them when they excavate the slave quarters–those, fist charms, and blue beads. Not at grave sites.I do want to check out *Slavery and Public History*. That sounds fascinating.

  3. I am dumbstruck by that plaque.It seems like it was written by the same person who wrote the ahistorical account of slavery at the Bicentennial Mall.

  4. Oh, I see. Hmmm. This is why I work with documents, not objects primarily. Blue beads sound to me like a southeastern Indian trade good. The fist charms might be Caribbean and thus coming upriver or Angolan (and thus coming in with the overland post-Revolutionary migration from the VA piedmont). Taken together with the cowrie, that all sounds like conjure.Here’s a paper that contains some anthro insight into fist charms (one was found at Jefferson’s Poplar Forest site, in what they think was the quarters of his cook). The fist charm stuff is about 2/3s of the way down in the file:

  5. Apparently they never learned the "When in doubt, keep it short" rule. They could have just said, "The city of Brentwood restored this cemetery to honor the people buried in it." End of discussion. There’s a historical marker not ten feet away that explains it’s a slave cemetery and does a much better job of giving information. Or, shoot, they could have just copied the text from the historic marker.

  6. Exactly. Leave off the editorializing and stick with the facts. The City of Brentwood can throw in whatever self-aggrandizing language if they want. Something like:The City of Brentwood restored this cemetary to prove that, although they aren’t welcome now, at one time black folks did live in Brentwood.We deeply appreciate being able to use them as a prop.

  7. If it weren’t for the "worked hard to make America a better place" bit immediately following, I would assume that the children/family reference was meant to emphasize the heroic nature of maintaining social and family ties in the face of an institution that worked to destroy them every day. Because I do find that struggle genuinely heroic: not to despair, to love, to teach, to maintain humanity while being told that one is less than human. But given the phrase that follows, I think it was intended to mean, "see, the slavery *right here* wasn’t so bad, families weren’t broken up, and it has all turned out for the best, hasn’t it?".

  8. Ha, brilliant!Bridgett, I’m sure it is conjure stuff. If you go to the Hermitage and see the pictures of Jackson’s slaves blown up big, you can see one of them has a silver dime on a string around her ankle, so someone was doing that kind of work out there, for sure.

  9. NM, as usual, we’re posting at the same time. It’d be fun to go out to the Hermitage and talk to someone about conjure practices among the enslaved population. I wish I had a camera.

  10. Ooh, yes, let’s. I’ll bring the camera, you bring the questions (on account of I know nothing about African or North American conjure practices or *anybody’s* conjure practices much after the 15th century).

  11. I wonder if the folks out at the Hermitage would be game for that. Let’s discuss when we have lunch next week.

  12. This may come as a shock, but, way into the 80’s there were several, small, black communities in Brentwood. They weren’t large communities, but, most were descendants of slaves from places like Midway, and some of the other estates. They really need a marker to mark Hardscuffle (now Church St) They’d probably never do that in a million years, though.

  13. Now, Sista, you can’t just be throwing out interesting things like "they need a marker to mark Hardscuffle" and not explain why! Tell! Tell!

  14. Hardscuffle….now it’s called Church St. Hardscuffle was the part past the bridge where 65 goes over where Wilson Pike meets Church. Lots of interesting black folks lived over there. Characters known by everyone in town….good people. I have often wondered where they moved to when progress moved in and forced them to leave.Brentwood definitely needs a monument to Frank Waters, who worked at Huff’s Food Town from the time he was a little boy until he died suddenly from a heart attack in his 50’s. He was part of everybody’s family. Ugh…I’m gonna get emotional thinking about Frank. My best friend in 6th and 7th grade, one Martha Aretha, but, everybody called her "Lisa" (never figured out how they got Lisa out of that) lived down Liberty Church Rd, which is off Concord Rd. She lived in a house with her mom, older sister, her aunt, Rosa Kate and her huge brood of kids and grandkids…no dads in sight. They were descendants of slaves. I learned this many years later, after I was grown and read up on a lot of my Brentwood history. Ahh…she was fabulous. I would love to see her and the rest of that bunch. I could name every single one of the cousins…I’ll never forget the day she walked home from school with the grandson of Herschel Greer (ya know..Greer Stadium and all that), I wonder what his rich, very white, conservative mother said when Lisa walked in…"There’s a negro here. Isn’t that quaint?" The only other black families in Brentwood then were all kids of people like, the head of TSU, professors at Vanderbilt, etc. except for the Dobbins family who lived in an old farmhouse on Concord Rd. across from Lipscomb school. A couple generations of that family worked at the school, cleaning up after us snot nosed, bratty kids. I really didn’t mean to ramble. I shoulda done a post about it.

  15. I’m not sure if any of you would know any of the name dropping Im about to do… but you were associated with Hardscuffle Rd <by any means> you might. I am a 33 yr old woman currently living about 20 mins south of Atlanta GA. I moved here in January of 2006, I was born in Nashville TN (when it was Metro General Hospital)… I lived with my very young mother: Katherine Reynolds, her 4 sisters (Donna, Sandra, Maxine, Paulette) and 3 brothers (Mack Jr, Robert & Prentice) not to mention my cousins that were born a year to 4 years prior to myself. I loved Hardscuffle Road but moved away before everyone started selling their property (or being bought out).The Dobbins Family are my cousins, My grandmother Velma E Reynolds died Dec 28, 2005 (God bless her soul)… I am related to the McCord Family as well. I remember where the Cobbles stayed and actual one family member STILL to this day stays there.We have had a Brentwood Family Reunion every year for the past 20+ years in Sevier Park off of 8th Ave South every 3 Saturday in June to celebrate the life & times of all those from Hardscuffle Rd. As a child I found it semi-boring to hear the heritage & history.. Now i long for it every year. If you would like any information please email me: latoyamonique@hotmail.comI‘m sorry I rambled… I am not trying to solicit just bring together. No admission costs, or participation fees.. Just black folks comin together! (as my grandmother use to say)Thank You for taking the time to read this…and God Bless You All your family!*Toya

  16. Im sorry I forgot to mention.. Mt Lebanon Baptist Church moved to Una Antioch Pike.. my mother still attends the church and several members from Brentwood as Well.. The Owens Family, The Bowlings, The Smiths, The Johnsons.. etc. I remember getting our hair pressed and putting on our Sunday’s best to perform the Easter Speeches we practiced all week with Ms Linda…Wow!Those was WONDERFUL times!I did a google search on ‘Hardscuffle Road’ and came up w/ this website… I am so glad you decided to create this!!*Toya

  17. I really love this about blogging, that sometimes folks who know exactly what they’re talking about come by. Thanks so much, LaToya. You’ve really added a lot of information to the discussion.

  18. Isn’t it funny–I was also Googling Hardscuffle Rd and found you!Actually, there is a historical marker on what is now Church St. East commemorating the African-American community there.

  19. hello my name herchel a bailey, my parent and grandparent and great parents where from brentwood hardscuffle rd. what is so funny about that. many white people who live in the town or so unappreciative of the fact that the land where they lived was all owned by us maybe they dont want to except and. where the brentwood funeral is where my great grandparents lizzy and cliff lee, house was. my grandparent james and maggie lee lived jest across the street and so did my mother Elaine harrison. my grandfather was the first girl softball coach that brentwood school ever had. im proud that i know my history. i go to starbucks every morning before going to work and listen to lots of rich whits lie to their kids about this town. to all of you tell them the truth. you know where live or are you jest stupid. sorry but it makes me angry to know how people lie about something where my pocession lied.

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