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.
Continue reading “Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley”

“Children will listen”

Early November usually looms with promise for me. At school, we end our first term with a  lovely three-day weekend (for grading, admittedly) and the promise of a new term chock-full of exciting topics and the bonus of time to rest and plan ahead during the holiday breaks.  This year, I was more excited than ever. I was confident that after all the stress of the election cycle, things were going to turn out well. I was certain that Hillary was going to win the election and become our first female president.

Well.

This past week flashed me back two years to another November. Continue reading ““Children will listen””

Teaching as Creative Process

“You teach?”

“I teach. Computer Age Philosophy…”

-Jonathan Larson, Rent

I tend to think of myself as a late bloomer. No, that’s not accurate. Let’s put it this way, instead: I have a lot of different interests, and I’ve always been this way. Growing up, I considered many career options as a result. First there was my archaeologist phase, in no small part inspired by the Indiana Jones movies and a fascination with ancient Egypt (which my dad happily helped foster). For a long time, there was also the doctor phase (pediatric plastic surgeon, pediatric neurosurgeon). And of course, I can’t leave out the time when I was going to get a degree in international business (for the traveling), and also own my own martial arts studio.

Teaching never crossed my mind, even when I figured out at age 20 that I wanted to get a PhD. Even then, I wanted the degree because I saw it as a personal milestone. I wanted it for the research and for the writing, and possibly also because it was a way to get to spend years reading books.

Continue reading “Teaching as Creative Process”