Previous Chapter | Contents | Next Chapter

Negroes in Tennessee

  1. Little is known concerning the coming of the first Negroes to Tennessee, but there is reason to believe that they were in the territory much earlier than is commonly supposed. It is probable that Negroes were with De Soto when he camped near the present site of Memphis in 1541, since they were known to have been with him when he left Spain the previous year. A century later the French are reported to have sent "an army of 1,200 white men and double that number of red and black men who took up their quarters in Fort Assumption, on the bluff of Memphis." The next Negro to set foot on Tennessee soil seems to have been with Colonel James Smith and a group of Long Hunters who explored the Cumberland country in 1766. Known to history merely as "Jim" this "mulatto lad" inspired a stanza in Colonel Smith's diary. Another "negro fellow" accompanied James Robertson in 1779 when he came down from the Holston Settlement to the site of what is now Nashville.

  2. The new settlers brought Negroes with them and by 1790, when the first census was taken, there were 3,417 slaves in the Territory. Six years later, when Tennessee became a State, there were 10,613 Negroes in a population of 77,282. As a result of the invention of the cotton gin and the rapid growth of the cotton industry, slavery was widely expanded between 1790 and 1835. By 1840 Tennessee had 183,057 slaves whose per capita value was about $550 as compared to less than $100 in 1790.

  3. According to Caleb Patterson, "slavery nowhere in the United States reflected physiographic features more distinctly than in Tennessee." East Tennessee, with its small farms and its independent struggling yeomen, had few slaves; Middle Tennessee, with larger estates and commercial interests, had a larger number; West Tennessee, the richest cotton region of the State, had the highest concentration of Negroes.

  4. The lot of the Tennessee slave was perhaps less unfortunate than that of many of his brethren. Tennessee's slave code guaranteed the Negro shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention. It protected him when he ceased to be useful, gave him the right to contract for his freedom, and in 1835 granted him the right of trial by jury - a privilege accorded to slaves in only four other States. The preponderance of small farms was also advantageous to the slave. Here the absentee landlord system was never prevalent. The small farmer, in close contact with his slaves, was considerate of their welfare. As a result of more direct association with the whites, greater diversification of tasks, and more responsibility in their performance, slaves in Tennessee (like those in the mountain area generally) were often more developed mentally than those in typical plantation States.

  5. Slavery in Tennessee, however, was not without its darker side. Traders imported considerable numbers of Negroes from other sections to be resold into the Southwest. Nashville, the capital, did a thriving business and Memphis was the slave-trading center of the Mid-South. The trader's exhortation to "buy more Negroes to raise more cotton to buy more Negroes to raise more cotton" was taken as sound advice. Although between 1826 and 1855 there were laws against it, the domestic slave trade continued.

  6. From the first, however, there were those who opposed slave trading. Before 1830 Tennessee was a center of abolition activity. The attitude of the people toward the Negro was reflected in legislation and judicial decisions, in organized societies, in the churches, and in abolition literature unusual for the time and section. By 1827 Tennessee contained more antislavery societies than did any other State except North Carolina. Here also was published in 1819 the first forthright abolition periodical in the United States. Among the enthusiastic workers for freedom, Benjamin Lundy, founder of the Genius of Universal Emancipation and later associated with William Lloyd Garrison, was prominent. Many churches and some educational institutions engaged actively in the crusade for emancipation. Various societies worked to improve conditions for slaves and free Negroes, to eradicate the domestic slave trade, to effect gradual abolition and colonization; and the more uncompromising groups wished to abolish slavery immediately.

  7. Although abolitionist activity continued intermittently after 1834, increasing demand for slave labor in the western part of the State, and in the cotton-producing valleys of East Tennessee, was accompanied by a growth of pro-slavery sentiment in the State as a whole. By 1855 Statewide sentiment was pro-slavery.

  8. The number of free Negroes in Tennessee had increased from 361 in 1801 to 4,555 in 1831. In that year "defensive legislation" was enacted providing that no slave should be emancipated unless he should leave the State immediately. Negro suffrage was abolished in 1834. Aside from the fact that the free Negro was permitted to attend private schools in Memphis and Nashville, to receive religious instruction, to sue and be sued, to make contracts and inherit property, and to enjoy legal marriage, no rights of citizenship remained to him after 1834. A sort of inmate on parole, he was both socially and economically proscribed.

  9. In spite of the numerous restrictive measures against them, a great number of free Negroes prospered. One of these was a Negro who lived in Nashville in the early 1800's and supplied many whites and Negroes with vegetables from his garden. Upon the occasion of the wedding of his daughter he invited all the prominent white people in town - and "they all went" including General Andrew Jackson and Dr. McNairy, who "danced the reel with the bride." Among those who showed unusual progressive traits were "Black Bob" noted tavern-keeper; "Free Joe" who in 1824 established a colony where his people "enjoyed freedom within a stone's throw of one of the largest slave marts in the world"; and Joe Clouston, who had considerable money, property, and "more than a hundred slaves."

  10. In the vote of 1861 on secession from the Union practically all the eastern counties were opposed, while most of the western and middle counties were in favor of secession. The relationship of cotton to this vote was as marked as was the relationship of the vote to the high Negro population proportion in the different parts of the State. Tennessee was the last State to secede and the first to return. Excluded from Lincoln's plan for emancipation in 1861, it was the only State to free the slaves by popular vote.

  11. After emancipation many Negroes in Tennessee, as elsewhere in the South, migrated to the cities near by and to the urban areas of the North in search of work. Some of them made places for themselves in industries - in mining, iron and steelwork, and the railroads. Others found work in service and trades, as domestics, laundresses, and porters. The bulk of the race, however, was confined to odd jobs or returned to the soil as "croppers" and later as tenants. Some of the Negroes bought farms and homes, others, with accumulated savings, opened businesses. There were apparently few dependents among the freedmen in the State as a whole.

  12. The Negro population has consistently followed the economic fortunes of the three divisions of the State. Since 1880 the State has shown a gradual decline in the proportion of Negroes in the total population, but this decline has been unevenly distributed. There are no Negroes in Union County (East Tennessee) while 73 per cent of the population in Fayette County (West Tennessee) is Negro. In 1930, Negroes numbered 9 per cent of the population in East Tennessee, 34.8 per cent of that in West Tennessee, and 18.3 per cent of the population in the entire State.

  13. The story of the Negro in Tennessee cannot be told from census statistics alone. Negroes in the State have accumulated church property valued at about eight million dollars. They own farms worth $10,249,910, and their 33,655 owned homes have an estimated value exceeding $43,000,000. They manage through small retail enterprises to do a volume of business of about $9,000,000 annually. This excludes three large religious publishing houses, an insurance company, and several banks and plants for manufacturing lighting fixtures. The Baptists, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church have developed publishing businesses - the first two in Nashville, the third in Jackson.

  14. As laborer and as artisan, the Negro has been a significant factor in the development of agriculture and in the building of cities. Many of the fine old mansions, which stand today after more than eighty years, were built by hired slave artisans, and some of the modern structures that are the pride of business were built by the free descendants of these artisans. Negroes excel even today as stone and brick masons.

  15. One of the most prominent of Tennessee's Negro citizens is J. C. Napier, who in 1939 passed his ninety-fourth birthday. His father was a free Negro in Dickson County, and son of the founder of the Napier Iron Works. Napier, an attorney and banker, has served as a member of the Nashville School Board, and was appointed Register of the United States Treasury under President Taft. In Memphis, Napier is honored by a school, a park, and a court which bear his name.

  16. Between 1865 and 1905, Negroes were affiliated with almost every department of the government in Memphis. Outstanding in politics is R. R. (Bob) Church, of Memphis, whose position has been strategic because of the numerical influence of the Negro voters in West Tennessee. His sister, Mary Church Terrell, became a prominent national leader in the organization of Negro women's civic clubs throughout the country.

  17. Perhaps the most dramatic character in law and politics was Samuel A. McElwee. While still a student at Fisk University he campaigned for a seat in the legislature and won election in January 1883. He was famed for his eloquence, won many friends and success as a criminal lawyer, a field in which few Negroes had found opportunity.

  18. Many of the founders of Negro businesses, as well as the founders of families of importance in the State, started as barbers, caterers, draymen, and hucksters. Their children received the benefits of formal education and in many instances went into the professions. An outstanding example is Lewis Winter, who was born a slave but became a chief produce dealer in the South and amassed a large fortune.

  19. Tennessee has an unusual number of important educational institutions for Negroes. The missionary associations of the several major Christian denominations sent teachers to the Negroes immediately after the War between the States. Baptist, Methodist, and Congregational missionary societies opened schools in 1866. The American Baptist Home Mission Society established Roger Williams University, the American Missionary Association established Fisk University, and Walden University was founded as Central Tennessee College by the Freedmen's Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. All these schools were located in Nashville. The first missionary work of an educational character undertaken by the Freedmen's Mission of the United Presbyterian Church was McKee School in Nashville, which later developed into Knoxville College (1875). In 1876 Meharry Medical College was founded as part of Walden University. At present there are six Negro major institutions of higher learning; and one normal and junior college.

  20. The earliest professional men received their training in the institutions of the North and then became active in the Negro educational institutions of the State. One of these was the late Dr. F. A. Stewart, a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, who had a distinguished career in medicine. An outstanding Negro physician in Tennessee and one of the most prominent in the South was Dr. Robert Felton Boyd, who was graduated from Meharry in both medicine and dentistry in the early eighties. The Mercy Hospital (now the Hubbard Hospital of Meharry Medical College), owned by Dr. Boyd, was the first in Nashville established for the care of Negroes. He served for many years as professor of gynecology at Meharry Medical College, and was active in political and civic affairs.

  21. Other Tennessee Negroes who have distinguished themselves include Dr. William Sevier, an early Meharry graduate, who later became dean of Negro pharmacists throughout the country; Dr. W. A. Hadley, another of the early graduates of Meharry, who combined the practice of medicine with public school teaching, and for whom one of Nashville's Negro schools is named; and Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, president of Howard University.

  22. The shifting economic patterns and fortunes of the State have kept the Negro population in active ferment, struggling for survival and status. The Negroes in this, as in other States, must carry a double task: they must overcome a late start in civic and economic participation and the traditional handicaps of low income, inadequate educational facilities, and some lingering doubt as to their capabilities; at the same time they must make their own constructive impress upon the total life of the State. The extent to which this has been done in the past indicates not only the vitality of the Negro population itself, but also the dominance in the State as a whole of the disposition toward encouraging such development.

    Previous Chapter | Contents | Next Chapter