News Round-up: Nashville’s Fort Negley Receives UNESCO Slave Route Designation

We are all still shook.

Two years ago, Fort Negley, a Union Civil War fort built by enslaved and free black laborers, and defended by the United States Colored Troops, was on land slated for development. History buffs from all over middle Tennessee rushed in to do what we could to preserve the history and legacy of this place and the amazing community that sprang from it. Despite this, we all knew there was still so much history that could be lost forever.

Giving my speech at the UNESCO Celebration and Press Conference at Fort Negley, 5/21/19.
Photo by Destiny Hanks.

And now? It is a site on the UNESCO Slave Route. It is one of FOUR sites in the United States to have earned this distinguished designation. It means that Nashville is sitting on a historic gold mine that is integral to the world’s understanding of enslavement, resistance, and recovery. I can’t believe our city almost built condos on that land.

This past week has been a blur as all of the people and groups who have been working together to save the fort and its history joined at Fort Negley to celebrate. As writer of the lengthy application, I had the honor of speaking at the press conference. Below is my speech, and beneath that, links to the news outlets that covered this momentous occasion for the US.

It’s such an intense pleasure to be here with you all today. I’m Dr. Angela Sutton, co-director of the Fort Negley Descendant’s Project. That means that I have the great fortune and even greater responsibility of hearing and amplifying the words of the descendants of the Fort Negley community.

They are those who built this fort under unthinkable conditions, those who risked everything to defend it, and our union, and those who stayed in Nashville after the war, creating our black neighborhoods and institutions that have contributed so much to this city with so little recognition.

When Fort Negley Park was under threat of development, the people whose ancestors worked, fought, and died here were concerned that this space and its legacy would be destroyed.

We all were.

I had accepted a position with Vanderbilt’s Digital Humanities Center, and together with a working group, looked for digital solutions to preserve as much of the history of this Fort as possible. We didn’t find the descendants of Fort Negley- they found us. They told us their family histories, and brought to life the legacy of this place. It was through Gary Burke, Eleanor Fleming, Bill Radcliffe, Carmen Regina Johnson, Charles Johnson III, Sabrina Johnson Gresham, and Felix Carlos Harding Johnson that we began to see just what a profound effect Fort Negley has had on the African American community. This Fort’s descendants have gone on to do amazing things with their lives, and they do it with so much purpose, knowing that their enslaved ancestors risked their health and lives on the hope that their descendants would have the freedom and equality that was denied to them.  For the descendant population, Fort Negley is sacred. It speaks to an ancestral strength each of them talk about and draw upon. It’s been an honor to sit here with them and see the site through their eyes.

This is why Fort Negley is so important. There were and still are  many sites here in Nashville, in Tennessee, and in the country, that speak to black history. But few are as dynamic and all-encompassing as Fort Negley. Like many sites here, it is a site of enslavement and all of the degradation and pain that goes with that history. But it is also a site of resistance to slavery, resilience, and recovery from slavery’s legacy. Here where we stand today,  African Americans risked their lives in the US military in hopes of a better life for their descendants. Enslaved people fled here to in order to escape their enslavers and attain freedom after the war. And when the war was done? Many built their homes right on the side of this hill, founding our historically black neighborhoods in this area, then going on to build Nashville’s black legacy. From Fort Negley, descendants went on to TSU, Meharry, and Fisk to become leaders of their communities, and shaped and continue to shape our nation’s civil rights dialogue.

I created the UNESCO nomination for the Friends of Fort Negley and the NAACP because there are so few sites that fulfill such a wide and enduring plethora of criteria for memorialization. Fort Negley is a structure constructed by the enslaved. It is a site of slave resistance. It is a site of social mobility for free blacks. It is a site of brutality. It is a battlefield, in many different senses of the word.  It is a site of cultural expression and a site of commemoration.

The UNESCO Slave Route Designation is about global recognition of the specialness of this jewel in Nashville’s crown. We are sitting on a place that is fundamentally integral to global understanding of slavery and its legacy.

So before I get ahead of myself, allow me to introduce to you Professor Jane Landers, who can speak more to this. Dr. Landers is a mentor of mine, and a friend, to me, and to Fort Negley. She has built her career researching and teaching the histories of Africans and their descendants in the Americas in the Vanderbilt University history department, and has created the Slave Societies Digital Archive, the largest of its kind, to help preserve those vital sources of black history for other scholars and the public to use. Because of this, the UNESCO International Scientific Committee on Slave Routes brought her onboard as the SOLITARY American representative, to help them identify the sites in the US that are most crucial for inclusion on the international historical Slave Route. Unfortunately, she could not be here in person today, as her duties with UNESCO keep her traveling often, but she has created a short video for us to tell us a bit more about this process and to celebrate this momentous day with us.

Thank you.

Fort Negley Receives International Recognition Thanks to the Work of Vanderbilt Scholars – Vanderbilt University News

Fort Negley Added to UNESCO Slave Route Project – Nashville Scene

UNESCO Adds Nashville’s Fort Negley to its Slave Route Project – The Tennessean

Historic Fort Built by African Americans Receives International Recognition – Rolling Out

Then through the Associated Press article, we made news everywhere:

Nashville Civil War Fort Gets ‘Slave Route’ Designation – New York Times

This article appeared in the Washington Post, Yahoo News, San Francisco Chronicle, ABC News, Fox13, MSN, The Telegraph, and in most state and city news outlets!





When There is a Mission

This March, I took two trips for work that ended up having a profound effect on the way I see my job and my place within it. I think this is a good place to talk about that.

My job involves grants administration. Vanderbilt is part of a consortium of five universities in which the Mellon Foundation has taken an interest to facilitate digital humanities collaboration. My job is quite broadly defined- I assist the PI on the grant to do whatever is necessary to help ensure that all the things that were promised in the grant happen.  A big part of that is facilitating collaborations between faculty and staff at our partner institutions in the consortium, and the best way to do that is to build relationships in person.

Two of our universities are in Nashville as well- Fisk and TSU. Relationships between Fisk and TSU and Vanderbilt have been taking place for a long time. But we also have Berea up North in Kentucky, and Tougaloo down South in Mississippi, and the distance between the three of our campuses meant that collaborations hadn’t been as long-standing. This is exciting for me- going to new places, meeting new faces, and getting to feel like the good news fairy. I kept repeating, “I know someone at a partner institution who works on that! Let me connect you,” or “That would make an amazing collaborative grant application, write that up!” and “there’s definitely money in the grant for that kind of faculty development.”

A DH Skill-share session at Berea, with faculty, staff, and students from Berea, TSU, Fisk, and Vanderbilt.

It was also fun to help facilitate important discussions and presentations. There were Digital Humanities skill-shares, planning for future events, teaching talks, postdoctoral presentations, and so much crucial foundation-building work.

But beyond that, what was amazing about these two trips this month was the feel of both Tougaloo and Berea. Both schools are smaller and deeply mission-driven. Tougaloo College is an HBCU just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, built on the grounds of the Boddie Plantation. Just opposite the old mansion in direct juxtaposition to it, is a church that has hosted many of our world’s finest Civil Rights thinkers: MLK, Angela Davis, Joan Baez, and Stokely Carmichael, to name just a small selection. During the Civil Rights era, Tougaloo Campus sheltered Freedom Riders and other Civil Rights activists, and their Special Collections room holds a fragment of a cross that white supremacists burned on that campus as a reaction to this.

One of the trip’s highlights was getting to meet John Johnson, who worked with Professor Phoenix Savage to produce an exhibit funded by one of the collaborative grants.

John Johnson poses with some of his photographs for the “Black at Brown” exhibit for Tougaloo’s Humanities Week, funded by the Mellon Collaborative grant through Professor Phoenix Savage.

Berea College has a similarly inspiring history. It was founded by a white Southern abolitionist, the son of a slaveholder. He was disinherited for this, and his family threatened often. Berea’s mission was to educate black and white students together, and it was the first co-ed institution in the South to accomplish this. In addition to that, the founders of Berea wanted their students to never have to pay tuition, so they committed to fundraising to ensure none would. That promise lasts to this day, and as a result the majority of Berea’s students are first-generation students and/or come from households with limited income. In rural Appalachia, where opportunities for economic advancement are few and far between, Berea College stands out as a beacon of hope.

Though Berea and Tougaloo each have their own distinct feels, they both share a vibrant commitment to mission. Each person I spoke with cared deeply about students, about social justice, and about creating a better world through education. They reminded me of why I was attracted to this world, and of how far education has propelled me. I too was the first person in my family to go to college, and the school in which I landed (the University of Stirling in Scotland) was also an institution with a mission. Set in Scotland’s coal country after the closure of the mines, it too attracted faculty who cared about reversing the economic depression of the region through teaching a specific population of students. All of my professors were so cognizant of the additional challenges first generation students faced, and despite being overworked and underpaid, they gave so generously of themselves to ensure that we could reach our goals. They did so much with what they have, just like the faculty at Tougaloo and Berea.

March should have zapped my energy with two additional business trips thrown into the busiest part of the semester. Instead, I came away feeling renewed, hopeful, and excited about the future. Visiting these two places helped remind me of why I do what I do, and why the long hours are so incredibly worth it.

Double Your Digital Archive

Picture the scene: You’re one of the founders of an oral history digital archive. The archive, the Fort Negley Descendants Project (FNDP), finds and collects the voices of those who descended from the population of builders, both enslaved and free, and United States Colored Troops who defended a historic Civil War fortification in your city.

Destiny Hanks, Juliet Larkin-Gilmore, and I make up the current core members of the FNDP.

The project is time sensitive. A year ago, the land upon which the fort was built was sold to developers in what I’ll euphemistically describe as a shady deal. While the fort’s future was up in the air, the neighborhoods surrounding it rapidly gentrified. Each tall and skinny in these areas surrounding Fort Negley represents a family whose story left with them as they were priced out of the neighborhoods that had been theirs for generations.

Continue reading “Double Your Digital Archive”

A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Writing Audience (Part II)

I read about Lynn’s year of writing and my first thought was “that’s excellent! I love when people decide on a path, then walk it despite their fear.” She’s such a strong writer and the world needs more of her voice. She’s got nothing to be scared of.

My second thought was “Oh boy, how do I follow this? My 2018 writing year is a hot mess.”

It’s all over the place! I wrote… all the things. For all the people. And the range is intense:

FirstLutheran2018
 

Sharing research with First Lutheran Church in Nashville

 

history lectures in my field for a church class, a co-written article on maps (not my field) for my crowd (professional historians),  exhibit text for a general audience interested in makerspace culture, a talk on the Slave Societies Digital Archive for scholars of religion at SORAAAD, a talk on the Fort Negley Descedants Oral History Project for the National Humanities Alliance, a Digital History Profile, an academic book review, two very different grant applications, a trade history book proposal  and sample chapters, blog posts, and more!

Unifying these incredibly diverse writing projects, is the question of audience.  For who do I write, and why? For me, 2018 was the year I spent experimenting with audiences. Continue reading “A SmartWomen’s Year in Review: Writing Audience (Part II)”

Creation & Curation: The Fort Negley Oral History Archive

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

Reenactors2017
Reenactors Bill Radcliffe and Gary Burke, descendants of soldiers who fought with the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War, stand at the base of Fort Negley, December 2017.

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.) Continue reading “Creation & Curation: The Fort Negley Oral History Archive”

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.

21868482_10155579748338956_158571024_o
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”

When the Public meets the Digital Humanities

This blog entry is part 1 of a two-part post reflecting about my experiences with the Mellon Institute in Digital and Public Humanities.  Please click here for part 2.

This summer, I signed up for the Mellon Institute in Public and Digital Humanities at the Vanderbilt Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy. (#VandyPDH) While I’m usually very type-A, I was running on empty and didn’t have time to form any goals or expectations going in beyond learning all the things. This lack of specific goals for the workshop turned out to be a major lesson in being open to unexpected partnerships and projects that form organically. It would hold the seed of  creating an experimental class for Vanderbilt undergraduates interested in Digital History. More on that below. Continue reading “When the Public meets the Digital Humanities”