Sunday, March 15, 2020

At a Tennessee slave cemetery, wilted roses and note of thanks

A wilted rose on the well-worn grave of a slave.
A memorial in the modest slave cemetery in Brentwood, Tenn.
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Aiming to clear our heads, my brother-in-law Nels and I biked the back roads south of Nashville on a frigid Sunday afternoon. We sometimes discover the unexpected on our weekly, mind-soothing rides -- an unruly dog in apparent attack mode, a seat on the porch of an out-of-the way general store, a fellow cyclist with a $6,000 bike.

But on this depressing, overcast day, we found the truly unexpected: a small slave cemetery on a narrow median in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes. How strange. Had we been traveling by car, we may have missed this surprise, announced by a black-and-white historical marker.

On a weekend bike ride, we briefly breathed in history.
Nearby, in the mid-19th century, 38 slaves toiled on the 600-acre plantation of Lysander McGavock, who farmed tobacco and corn. After McGavock's first home was destroyed in a fire,  slaves built the wealthy landowner a mansion called  "Midway" in 1847. Today it serves as the elegant headquarters of the Brentwood Country Club.

In this countryside roughly 10 miles from Nashville, skirmishes flared during the Civil War. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a notorious slave trader, raided 700-man Yankee garrisons in Brentwood with a loss of one soldier killed and two wounded in early spring 1863. "Midway" served as a hospital for both armies, which also used the plantation house as a headquarters as they marched back and forth from Franklin to Nashville.

Unlike their master's ornate gravestone on the grounds of "Midway," the markers for the slaves are not inscribed. Most are merely battered stubs of stone. We found wilted, red roses adorning some them, and pedals were scattered about the grounds. Inside the modest cemetery, steps from a busy road, a gray-granite memorial's inscription notes "unsung heroes" who "endured the shackles of slavery." A large wreath of white roses lay against the base of the monument. Small tokens of remembrance -- pennies, pebbles and other stones -- rested on its ledge. Someone left a note there, too.

"Thank you," it reads. "I so very hope someone thanked you during your life here. You could not have imagined so many wonderful things we have today because of your labors, and how much farther we have to grow."

We may not know their names, but they are remembered.

Life. Enjoy the journey. Always.

A poignant note on the gray-granite cemetery memorial.
Pennies, pebbles and other stones left on the slave cemetery memorial. And red roses (below) on gravestones, too.

          PANORAMA: Slave cemetery in Brentwood, Tenn., 10 miles south of Nashville.
                                     (Click icon at right for full-screen experience.)

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  1. My sincerest thank you and much honor to you and your work. You are not forgotten. I would not be the American I am today without your labor and efforts. - Donald

  2. John, thank you deeply for this poignant story. We lived in Nashville off McCrory Lane from 1993-2003 and I visited everything 'Civil War' that I could there and throughout Tennessee, but I've never seen this cemetery with memorial. It brightens my otherwise worrisome day of social distancing, and gives me some hope that all of us Southerners will have an accounting and reconciliation with our past.

  3. During my boyhood some decades ago, I lived in Brentwood and have memories of driving on Murray Lane off Franklin Road where a median existed. I am wondering if that is where you found the gravesites? Thanks—

  4. Hi, Old Man Winter. The cemetery is on Murray Lane, eastbound, on the median, between Franklin Road and Granny White Pike.

  5. Another fascinating post. Thank you John

  6. Thanks John... excellent as always!
    Rob FNQ,Au

  7. Anonymous1:36 PM

    My note - left as part of a religious education lesson to students on the value of expressing gratitude. : )