Drinking from the rooftops of certain honky tonks in downtown Nashville, you can spot one of the nation’s most important, yet underappreciated sites for African American history: Fort Negley, the Union Civil War fortification on St. Cloud Hill. Many tourists have no idea what it is they are looking at.
The fort was built in 1862, using a combination of forced labor of enslaved Africans which the Union army in Nashville had rounded up from nearby plantations, and free blacks of Nashville and the surrounding areas, who offered their services in exchange for payment (much of which never materialized). There were also contraband workers- people from all over the South who fled their enslavement and sought out the protection of the Union forces on St. Cloud Hill through volunteering their labor. Once built, the fortification was defended by various regiments of the United States Colored Troops against the Confederate forces. Both builders and defenders died in record numbers at Fort Negley in the defense of our union. Recent ground-penetrating radar reports have indicated a high likelihood that their remains still lie on the grounds of Fort Negley Park.
After the war, those who survived settled the nearby historically black neighborhoods of
Chestnut Hill, Wedgewood Houston, historic Edgefield, and Edgehill. At the turn of the century, several prominent families from these neighborhoods founded North Nashville and all of the prestigious black institutions residing there- the historically black colleges, businesses, and churches. In the 1950s, these same institutions trained and supported some of the sharpest minds of the Civil Rights movement. There is a long and unbroken connection between the builders and defenders of Fort Negley, and Nashville’s current African-American population. Many members of this population see the fort as sacred, and they memorialize it with ceremonies, oral traditions, and historic reenactments.
Recently, Fort Negley has received national coverage due to a highly controversial development plan that would jeopardize the site and disturb the final resting place of the builders and defenders of the fort. Many take exception to the development for a wide variety of reasons beyond historic (questions concerning who was granted the development and why, the ethics of selling off city land to private developers who stand to profit from it, how it exacerbates unfettered gentrification in a rapidly-expanding city, etc.)
From a historical point of view, the development is particularly distressing because of the ways in which the descendants of Fort Negley’s builders and defenders have been railroaded, and their concerns about proper memorialization of this site dismissed. In the face of all of this change, I, and many others devoted to historic preservation, worry that Nashville will lose that which makes it unique. As gentrification pushes more black families from these neighborhoods out of the city limits, and this development robs the community of a place that has secured a spot in black oral tradition, stories will become less accessible. People will forget.
In response, a handful of colleagues at Vanderbilt’s Digital Humanities Center and the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and I have thrown our hats into the ring to support the members of the community who struggle to preserve those voices. We created a working group (Called Digital Initiatives in Public Engagement) to explore the ways in which we could offer digital solutions to a local public history concern- in this case, the loss of descendant voices. With the generous help of Fort Negley’s biggest fans, we have been able to track down several descendants of the fort, both builders and defenders, and film their stories for the creation of the Fort Negley Oral History Archive to be housed in Vanderbilt University’s repository in perpetuity.
The support from people both at Vanderbilt and from the community have been overwhelming. People have generously given their time, their advice, their office space, their stories, and their knowledge of filming and editing, data curation, metadata, transcription, and web developing. They have also given up many, many Saturdays. So far, we have been able to film Gary Burke, descendant of a soldier in the 13th Regiment of the US Colored Troops, and one of the most vociferous and devoted defenders of the fort’s black history, as well as Dr. Eleanor Flemming, descendant of two formerly enslaved builders of the fortifications. We are in the process of reaching out to several others, with the goal of adding at least three more stories this year. We have also filmed several events, such as a Civil War Reenactment at the fort, and a commemoration ceremony for the deceased builders of the fort, for supplemental footage for editing.
This semester we are also testing our editing skills, cutting down the interviews for clarity without sacrificing story. We’ll transcribe them and work with our librarians to create metadata for searchability, and develop a front-facing user-friendly website. Everything filmed for this archive will always be open access and free to the public. We are continually thinking about audience, ensuring that both historians as well as locals interested in oral history will be able to easily access and use the interviews.
While we work, we are creating in such a way that more interviews can be added later on, and creating options to make available additional related primary source materials, such as supplemental footage, photographs, written pieces, and things like the filmed speeches, songs, and spoken word of the commemoration ceremony. While doing so, members of the group will co-author an academic piece explaining the process behind the creation of the archive, the methodology, and the questions that arose as we worked. We will address who has worked on this archive, the decisions we made as it grew, and who was included/excluded in the interviews, and why.
Obviously, it’s an ambitious project still in its infancy, and so we are creating as much built-in room to grow as possible. I currently work with the Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA, formerly ESSSS) facilitating its digital overhaul, and am applying the lessons learned there to this project as much as possible. You can read more about that at Small Axe’s Archipelagos Journal.
If you are interested in the Fort Negley Oral History Archive, or are able to help, or if you are a descendant or know someone who is, please get in touch or urge them to do so.
EDITED ON 1/12/18: The developers who intended to build on Fort Negley Park have withdrawn from the project, citing concerns about human remains.