Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley

The other day, I did something terrifying.  I gave my professional opinion as a historian in front of an overflowing room at a televised Parks Board Meeting. I had the honor of speaking about one of the most rewarding and illuminating things I have done for history in a while: completing the involved research for the nomination of a local landmark, the Union Civil War Fort Negley, to the UNESCO Slave Route Project. If accepted, Fort Negley will become the first US site, ever, to earn this monumental designation.

…which is a big deal, because the park that the Fort sits on is slated for a controversial development that has consumed local and state news for months. This meeting drew a huge crowd of people concerned about the sale of city land to private developers at the expense of this fort and its history.

My relationship with this fort is as long as my relationship to Nashville itself. When I first moved here in 2007, I lived in a house with a few others in the neighborhood of historic Edgehill. When grad school got stressful, I would climb up to the ruins of Fort Negley, and sit under one of the trees there, soaking up the peace and quiet. To be able to see Nashville’s skyline but not hear many of the city’s noises felt like a luxury.  I would daydream and doze and if I let my brain relax and I squinted just right, I could see the way the fort looked when it was first built.

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Interpretive marker for the African American Laborers who built Fort Negley, at the Fort Negley Visitors Center, sponsored by the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt University.

The tree behind me would have still been a sapling. I pictured the soldiers, in sweat-stained blue union uniforms, pulling cannons up the hills, and the laborers digging ditches in the hot sun. I could imagine the charge of the Confederate army’s attempt to storm the hill, smell the burning gunpowder, and hear the scrambling of people and horses as they moved defenses into place. Before moving to the US, the Civil War was just a series of films for me, but at Fort Negley, it felt real for the first time. I felt a special sense of wonder about this secret jewel of a place hidden in plain sight.

At the time I was only 23. I had an undergraduate degree in history and religious studies, and a year of museum work under my belt. With even that limited experience in public history, it struck me as odd that the city had not made more of such an important place. Where were the historical interpreters? The tours? Merchandise? Displays for all the artifacts found? Why wasn’t there a twice-daily reenactment for tourists?

It wasn’t until I completed my PhD in history at Vanderbilt in 2014 that I understood how Fort Negley, a union stronghold built by conscripted and escaped slaves, and defended by the US Colored Troops, had been allowed to purposely languish by the same people in this city who continue to try to rewrite history.

The way Nashville has underplayed this site’s importance almost made me miss out on it, too.  But when you teach history, especially the history of Africans and their descendants in the Americas, to undergrads at a place like Vanderbilt, you have to be able to answer those tough questions about enslavement, emancipation, freedom, and all the degrees in between. The more I read about this fort and the Battle of Nashville in the US Civil War, the more excited I got about this site’s global significance. As soon as I was able to put together my own classes, I chose to highlight Fort Negley and share some of this mind-blowing history with my students.

The fortification at Fort Negley Park was built by a team of African-Americans consisting of runaway slaves from all over the South, freedmen of color, as well as local enslaved laborers forcibly conscripted by the Union’s corps of engineers. It was a brutal and treacherous endeavor, and disease claimed many during its construction. Upon its completion, Fort Negley served as a key location in the Battle of Nashville, where 8 regiments of the United States Colored Troops fought and died on behalf of the Union to repel the forces of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. At this time, runaway slaves from all over the South self-emancipated by congregating there into “contraband camps” where they helped the Union war effort in order to secure their freedom. Those who worked and fought at Fort Negley helped to secure legal freedom for all enslaved persons in the US.

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Interpretive Marker about the US Colored Troops who defended the fort, at Fort Negley Visitors Center.

Fort Negley’s history makes it vital not just to the history of the US, but to the history of global enslavement. It is a place where the descendants of the African diaspora experienced varying degrees of enslavement and freedom. The UNESCO Slave Route Project seeks to reflect better understandings of the causes and consequences of slavery in the world while presenting the global transformations and cultural interactions that have resulted from this history. The enslaved and freedmen who built and defended Fort Negley each had very rich and complex experiences at this fort. For some of the enslaved populations, it was a place of continued enslavement- they had been raided from a local plantation and were forced to work without pay for the Union’s engineers on the chance that their status might change after the war. For runaways who sought to escape their enslaved status, it was a place of refuge where they could hide from the Confederate troops and slavecatchers in the fort’s guarded contraband camp during the Civil War. For free people of color, working at Fort Negley allowed them to learn and refine skills and make valuable connections and establish careers that would persist into Reconstruction and beyond.

The story of many African-Americans ended at Fort Negley, and the story of many more began there. After the Civil War, the newly-freed African Americans of the fort set up neighborhoods in the surrounding areas of Edgehill and Chestnut Hill. The Ku Klux Klan met at this site to intimidate these new communities of color. Their efforts claimed lives, but did not destroy the communities, which saw several black-owned businesses and churches spring up. Residents from the Chestnut Hill neighborhood later founded the historically black community of North Nashville, including Fisk University, an HBCU that has educated and trained many prominent local Civil Rights Activists. The direct line from Fort Negley to the present has never been interrupted, thanks to its vocal and active descendants. TSU Professor Learotha Williams said it best when he compared the fort to Ellis Island– a place  to which black people from all over flocked to sign up for innumerable hardships so that their children could have a chance to prosper.

Most of the African-Americans who contributed to the Union cause at the fort never saw any monetary compensation for their struggles and sacrifices. Yet they fought for something larger than their own freedom or self-determination; they fought for a nation free from enslavement. In doing so, they helped move the United States away from its designation as a slave society, though many characteristics of this era persist in the present day. Fort Negley is a testament to the complicated and nuanced relationships black Americans have with their nation and history. Despite its importance, Fort Negley’s story remains largely untold in the nation’s, and even the city’s history. Fort Negley is a vital site to the investigation of our shared past, and a UNESCO designation will bring Americans and the world one step closer to the recognition of this multi-faceted and fraught history.

This plethora of research material made it hard to trim the UNESCO nomination down to

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Historical reenactors of the 13th Regiment of the US Colored Troops at the opening of Fort Negley Visitors Center in 2007. Gary Burke, great grandson of Peter Bailey of the 17th Regiment of the US Colored Troops is in the upper right hand corner. Photo taken from the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society.

just 6,000 words. Fortunately, I did not have to reinvent the wheel- I built upon the work of impressive and downright inspirational people who have from the beginning wanted more for Fort Negley. They saw the vision back when I was still dozing under the tree. People like Krista Castillo, Gary Burke, Bill Radcliffe, Mona Frederick, Zada Law, Bobby Lovett, Clay Bailey, and the dozens of employees, volunteers, and reenactors who keep coming back to this sacred site to educate the rest of us. I am truly humbled by their long-standing dedication to local public history, and to their vision of what our city could be. Nashville cannot thank them enough for their service, and I cannot thank them enough for making my task that much easier.

One more thing: As an educator, I cannot over-emphasize how important tangible history is for students who are just starting out in a topic. Reading and films are wonderful, but nothing truly makes history sink in like artifacts and physical remnants of the past. This is also conversely, why people ashamed of their history destroy or minimize these things- to make them inaccessible and to try to erase their ancestral complicity in this past.  Our Nation’s track record when it comes to black history is abysmal. Black students in particular should not have to visit a slave labor camp (or a plantation, as they are still called) to learn about our country’s past. It is an insult to take them there and tell them that this is their history when it is only a partial story.

The history of Africans in the diaspora is indelibly shaped by suffering, hardship, and death. No one could argue against that. But that isn’t all there is. The other half of this history is an overwhelming amount of perseverance, persistence, resilience, creativity, and ingenuity. In my work with the Slave Societies Digital Archive, I am continually struck by all the ways in which Africa’s descendants in the Americas exploited the system that was created to oppress, enslave, and dehumanize them at every turn. This part of the story is in places like Fort Negley- hiding in plain sight. Fort Negley is the historic site this fractured world desperately needs- one that speaks to the complicated and often brutal realities of our global past, illuminated softly by the light of the indomitable human spirit.

The nomination I drafted was sponsored by the Friends of Fort Negley and the Nashville branch of the NAACP. Cross your fingers for Nashville and watch this space to see if UNESCO accepts Fort Negley as their first US designation on the Slave Route Project.

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