There’s a type of generosity that exists, that causes me to
tear up when I see it. It’s the type of generosity of spirit that is so magnanimous
that it doesn’t require recognition because it simply is pure generosity for
its own sake, and there is no other way it could be described.
To understand what this means, consider Franklin, TN for a moment. It is in Williamson County, the third-largest slaveholding county in the state. Residents of Williamson County enslaved more people than that of Davidson County, home to the state’s capitol, Nashville. It still is the wealthiest county in the state, and was in the top 10 richest counties in America. Most of that money is old money. Much of it is slave money.
The Masonic Hall itself, alongside most of Franklin’s
downtown, was built by the enslaved. You can still see their fingerprints that
are impressed in the bricks and mortar if you look closely. For hundreds of
years, white masons gathered there to network and increase their wealth. Now,
it has become a site of learning about history, dedicated to the stories of
black Franklin, which have been kept from the public for so long.
Part of this mission, is reconciliation.
In our current political climate, this is a purposeful and
Most of you know that among many of the hats I wear, one of my favorites is director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, a digital humanities archive of oral histories from the descendants of the enslaved and free blacks who built and defended Nashville’s Civil War Fort Negley. My team of three films the interviews, researches their testimony to find additional resources, edits the footage, uploads it, creates content, and maintains/updates the website which gives you more information about the interviews, as well as information pertaining to the UNESCO Slave Route site of Fort Negley, and its unique role in shaping our nation’s history. We also occasionally put on events and screenings of the videos for the public.
It’s a ton of work, and I love doing this, and feel grateful to be able to do it alongside my job as postdoctoral fellow for Vanderbilt’s school of Arts & Sciences. It’s been humbling to be trusted with people’s family histories, and to hear their pain, share their triumphs, and help amplify their voices in a city whose demographics are rapidly shifting as gentrification pushes black people to its peripheries.
Analyzing the stakes others have in this project has been useful for keeping our team on track and developing its mission. For us, it is has always been most important to collect the histories of people who have gone digging for their own and are ready to share their findings with the world. We want to film and edit these videos in the highest quality, and offer the videos alongside supporting primary sources, secondary reading, and family histories. We want to create lesson plans that expand upon the important historical themes touched on in the videos. We want to preserve all this information, and keep it available for free to everyone.
Often our goals dovetail with the goals and stakes of others. For example, Fort Negley and the Friends of Fort Negley benefit from the project giving human faces and voices to a physical site. Vanderbilt University benefits from increased visibility and interaction with the wider community through my team and I. Some people have politically benefited from descendant voices being amplified in local politics, while others may have had their plans and aspirations thwarted by this same amplification.
To each of them, I would say the same thing: We are here to record, disseminate, and amplify the voices of a group of under-documented and under-heard people whose incredibly rich family histories have shaped our nation. Who do we work for? We work for history and its preservation. We work for a future in which everyone is equally heard, and in which everyone’s history holds equal value to this nation.
Nothing more, and nothing less.
How would you articulate the mission of your Digital Humanities project?
Last month, I was approached by Joseph Hill, documentary filmmaker, about his current project on the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. He was coming to Nashville to film at Fort Negley, and a few other sites related to enslavement and the USCT and asked if I could serve as a subject matter expert. He interviewed me on camera and asked some incredibly complex and insightful questions. The whole experience was thoughtful and thought-provoking.
This was because he knows his audience, and knows that they enjoy grappling with the complexities and intricacies of history that I live for. Mr. Hill didn’t just want to know about the history of USCT, he wanted to explore it in the context of global enslavement, and why his topic mattered so much in this particular moment in time.
As director of the Fort Negley Descendants Project, I’ve been able to interview two descendants of the USCT, Mr. Gary Burke and Mr. Bill Radcliff, and have gotten to know them over time through the events at Fort Negley that bring us together multiple times per year. We’ve spoken a lot about history, legacy, enslavement, freedom, and race. I bring to the table the historical source material, and they their lived experience and family histories. They have been generous with their observations, and with me when mine have been off. These conversations have been crucial to my own development as a person who shares the history of a topic that has left its mark on the country today. They have helped me understand how to balance what I know, with my own identity and with how I explain what I know, to whom I explain it, and why.
Midsummer 2019 was the day I moved into my first house. The sky blackened as I drove a carload of belongings there. I made it to my new neighborhood in North Nashville just as the thunderstorm hit. Pulling into the driveway, a loud snap shook my car. I watched the thick, sturdy tree in the front yard of the neighbors across the street collapse onto the road. It pulled down power lines right across the driveway making it unsafe to drive out. Fortunately, the damage was to property, and not people.
Stranded, I decided to make the most of it and unload my
things. The rain started up again, and cardboard boxes nearly disintegrated in
the deluge, but I got everything in more or less undamaged.
When the electricity went out, I checked my phone and saw that the storm been upgraded to a tornado warning just as the sirens came on. There was nothing to do except wait it out as night fell.
I didn’t want to sleep with no bed, electricity, or water service, so once the warning was over, I considered driving through the front yard to get out. Then I saw that the power lines weren’t just across my driveway, but across the whole yard. There was no way out.
And then two men in soaked hooded sweatshirts and flashlights knocked on my car window. They introduced themselves as Ernesto and Big Will, neighbors from down the street.* They were going house to house checking to make sure no one needed anything. With their help, I was able to reverse out out through the backyard and in the alley. They rushed to clear away tree branches and garbage cans that the storm had knocked over so I could get home and waved me off. Before I left, they talked about bringing out their chainsaws in the morning and helping my other neighbors break down that tree, so I could get my moving van in, as it might be a while before the city sent someone up here. North Nashville, a historically black neighborhood that is now in the grip of gentrification, hasn’t traditionally been high on the city’s priority list. Or even on it, for the vast majority of its existence.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.