© Wardell Milan. Courtesy David Nolan Gallery, New York
What the Land Holds
By Kelsey Norris
“through rot & iron of a city trying to forget // the bones beneath its sidewalks”—Ocean Vuong, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds”
It was the last weekend in April, and the fort was showing out: The day was bright and clear, and a breeze carried a campfire scent downwind from the peak of the hill where Fort Negley stood sentinel, overlooking the city of Nashville. A Civil War reenactment group ran marching drills, and an almost–Eagle Scout worked a cleanup project on the hill. Wildflowers and grasses and weeds sprung from atop the fort’s stone walls, through them.For the past year, five Vanderbilt researchers and historians, myself included, have collected oral histories related to this site—a Union fort largely built by enslaved and free African Americans, many of whom died during its construction. We’d gathered the stories of descendants of the laborers who built the fort and the soldiers who protected it. That Saturday, we’d unveil our work, though unveil felt like a grand word for what we’d amassed—largely two fifteen-minute video interviews. But there it was, printed just beside our project’s name on the event poster. FORT NEGLEY DESCENDANTS PROJECT: NASHVILLE'S BLACK LEGACIES OF THE CIVIL WAR. The name is clunky, a little wordy. But it has to hold so much.
We posted flyers on campus and around town, shared the details on social media. We expected—hoped for—thirty attendees. But around ninety people came, some of whom stood at the back of the theater, or crowded in the doorway to watch the interviews on a drop-down projector screen. We put out lemonade and gourmet popcorn from a black-owned shop across town (including a flavor called Nashville Hot—its dark red kernels an homage to the hot fried chicken the city’s become famous for).
I paced around the lobby outside the theater. I didn’t watch the videos because I know them by heart, have played them over and over again to cut an “um” here, to add a close-up there. My laptop’s hard drive is full to bursting with backed-up versions of old edits. Here is the moment where Eleanor tells the crowd gathered at Fort Negley’s anniversary ceremony last December how much her ancestors were sold for. Here is the close-up of the flags planted in Fort Negley’s soil for the event, each one to represent a man, woman, or child who built the fort. Now, Gary sings to that crowd in a rich baritone: Oh, freedom over me. And before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my lord and be free.
Gary Burke is a safety coordinator for General Mills in nearby Murfreesboro, and he’s been advocating for the fort for years. He picnicked at Fort Negley as a child with his family, and as an adult, he joined a reenactment group that builds soldiers’ camps and shoots cannons and shows local kids that U.S. Colored Troops were stationed at the fort. Gary was a reenactor for six years before discovering that he is related to one of those very soldiers. His interview for the Fort Negley Descendants Project is tender: He reads an original poem about the fort and gets choked up when he talks about finding his ancestor’s final resting place. “He was five-foot-eight, eighteen years old when he entered the Civil War,” Gary says, while images of the cemetery play across the screen. “He laid in his grave for a hundred and fifty years with no marker. Nobody knew he was there. If it wasn’t for the great records of the cemetery, I never would’ve found him.” As he talked on screen, the real-life Gary stepped out of the theater, teary again. He and I leaned in to one another in the lobby, hands on the other’s back.
Eleanor Fleming is an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and FNDP’s second interviewee. Eleanor grew up just outside of Nashville, but she’d never visited the fort before last October. In 2017, to commemorate one hundred and fifty-five years since Fort Negley’s construction, the park’s staff tweeted the names of those who built it—2,771 black laborers registered on the employment rolls, posted individually over the course of four months. (As the city’s documentation is incomplete and only includes the slave laborers registered to the site, the park’s staff believes that the African-American workforce was, in fact, larger than 2,771.) Eleanor recognized two of the names in her Twitter feed, and scanned through census records and wills of the family that owned them to track her ancestors’ lives and deaths in Nashville. “In that [slave] inventory was Ruffin, age thirty-four, valued at one thousand dollars,” she says in the video, to the crowd gathered at the anniversary event, “and Egbert, age ten, valued at nine hundred dollars. So I’m thinking, Nineteen hundred dollars—shouldn’t that be about the rent of the condos they would build here?” The they here is a city that is rapidly gentrifying, displacing its long-time residents, some of whom may very well have ancestral ties to Fort Negley. “If Ruffin and Egbert can survive what could’ve best been imagined as hell on earth to have families, to have children, to build a community,” Eleanor continues, “then what can we do? And can we do more to save this place?”
A year before the unveiling event, I’d never even heard of Fort Negley. For the two years I’d lived in Nashville and attended grad school at Vanderbilt, I’d worked from the coffee shop down the street from the fort, led workshops at the high school nearby, talked myself out of the FREE PERSONALITY TEST advertised on banners at the huge Scientology church just around the corner. I learned about Fort Negley and its past at the same time that I learned about its plight, when advocates for the fort were in a sort of crisis mode to protect its future.
Last September, I squeezed into a standing-room-only Parks and Recreation meeting to hear about the ongoing fight. I was a research fellow without a subject to research, and Fort Negley’s story was a compelling one. See, in addition to the visitor’s center and the fort itself, Fort Negley Park includes the land just downhill—land where Herschel Greer Stadium hosted Triple-A baseball games until 2015, when the team moved across town. The stadium sat unoccupied, graffitied and languishing on eighteen acres in the near-center of a growing city, until Mayor Megan Barry agreed to lease the parkland to private developers. The winner of the bid, the Cloud Hill group—co-founded by record producer T Bone Burnett and named after St. Cloud Hill, which the fort is built atop—planned to convert the stadium land into a mixed-use space that promised to include nature trails, artists’ studios, housing, and community spaces, among other things. “Let’s make a future where we all want to live,” reads their website for the development plan. “Let’s make a past we don’t have to forgive.”But the community wasn’t having it. The room at the Parks and Rec meeting that day was hot and tight, the lack of chairs and space perhaps an indication of the city’s underestimation of the battle to come. Folks wore t-shirts emblazoned with SAVE OUR PARKS and carried posters that demanded the same. A man in a Union blue uniform sat just down the row from an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. Angela Sutton, one of the co-founders of FNDP, described the nomination she’d submitted to designate Fort Negley as a UNESCO Slave Route site and protect its legacy on a global scale. The meeting adjourned without a decision.
In the months before the Cloud Hill plan would be put to a final vote, advocates wrote in to the paper, to the mayor’s office, to the development group. What right did the city have to lease public land? Would housing in Cloud Hill’s plan truly be “affordable,” and for whom? Might the fort be better safeguarded if it were a Confederate site in a Southern city? The local chapter of the NAACP opposed the development plan and supported the call for the site to return to parkland. Citing public criticism and concern, the parks council requested that Cloud Hill allow an archaeological survey to take place on the site in order to investigate what the fort’s advocates and historians had long posited—that the stadium might sit atop a massive African-American gravesite.
In January, the archaeological firm released its findings. Good news, bad news, complicated news. They’d surveyed the stadium, the parking lots, the trenches along the road. One section of the report listed fragments uncovered at the site: an old milk bottle, a faucet handle labeled COLD, broken plates, a nail polish bottle with remnants of red varnish still trapped inside. Yes, there were signs of life beneath Greer Stadium, evidence of “intact cultural features, which likely contain human remains.”
Since its inception, Fort Negley has been a contested site. Nashville fell early in the Civil War to Union control, and St. Cloud Hill, which stood at six hundred and twenty feet and looked over the city, would prove a key stronghold. What was previously rocky forestland would become an inland stone fort, built in a French-inspired star-shaped design that would allow its defenders vantage points from every angle. The fort’s chief engineer ordered the city to supply a one-thousand-slave workforce for labor, but most slaveholders didn’t comply and hid their slaves instead. So the Union set to recruiting. One army account describes the roundup of a group of black churchgoers:
A guard of blue-coated soldiers, with muskets, entered, and announced to the startled brethren that the services of the evening would be concluded at Fort Negley. Out went the lights, as if by magic, and there was a general dive for the windows. Shrieks, howls, and imprecations went forth to the ears of darkness, rendering night truly hideous. Fancy bonnets were mashed, ribbons were rumpled, and the destruction of negro finery was enormous. . . . The scene was amusing indeed. And the next morning it was still more comical,—the same crowd being at work at the fort, dressed in their mussed and bedirtied finery . . .
In order to build the fort, a labor force—composed of slaves, freedmen, and “contraband” escaped slaves who were promised freedom if the war was won—quarried limestone and cut trees from the hill. They slept in informal camps at the base of the hill or else out in the open, beside their worksites. Horrible living conditions, demanding labor, and meager supplies led to rampant disease and death amongst the laborers and their families living at the camps. A commander of one such camp wrote: “I found six dead bodies, covered with vermin. Some having been dead two days and no effort made to bury them . . . Some order should be issued that would force the officers . . . to bury their dead out of the way of the living.” Of those who survived, only three hundred and ten men received any pay, and even then, only a portion of what they were promised. Over the course of the four months that it took to construct Fort Negley, accounts estimate that between six hundred and eight hundred black laborers died. Historians suspect that many of them were buried at the base of the hill, away from the then-white City Cemetery (which is next to the modern-day stadium).
After the fort’s completion in December 1862, both white and U.S. Colored Troops were stationed there. When the war ended, the surviving laborers and remaining USCT soldiers formed neighborhoods in the surrounding area—what would serve as the foundation for historically black neighborhoods in Nashville. For years, the fort hosted informal black militias and communities. A 1929 article in the Tennessean cites “ghostly enclaves” of men dressed in white robes burning torches on Fort Negley at night. (Yes, a site that once promised a kind of black freedom also became the Ku Klux Klan’s first headquarters in the city.) Later, the fort’s walls were disassembled, and the stone was used to build a reservoir. Under the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration rebuilt the fort, marking its entrance with a huge stone arch. Fort Negley reopened as a municipal park in 1941, but it closed four years later for repair and fell into disuse in any official capacity for decades.
In 1964, the Metro Park commission voted unanimously to convert Fort Negley Park into the Nashville Zoo. A group of Nashvillians purchased twenty-two animals from a defunct Texas zoo—including a lioness, several peacocks, and two monkeys. However, due to legal and budget concerns, as well as complaints “on account of its aroma,” the plans were eventually abandoned and the animals returned. (The zoo was instead built on the former grounds of Grassmere farm, where the remains of twenty slave laborers were uncovered during renovations in 2014, examined, and reinterred behind the Grassmere Historic Home. In order to visit these graves, you must buy a ticket to the zoo.)
In 1970, the parkland adjacent to the fort was designated by the city as Herschel Greer Stadium, the new home of the Nashville Sounds baseball team. Fort Negley Park was reopened to the public in 2004. In 2016, just before the development debate picked up steam, Metro Parks and Recreation cleared eleven acres of trees and scrub from the fort’s land, and along with it, the homeless population taking shelter there.
Of all who’ve called the fort home over the years, none have been allowed to remain for long. Those who have remained—the African Americans who were abducted and brought there, who were forced to work there and died there—are entombed by layers of asphalt, buried beneath a parking lot and a baseball diamond.
In their separate interviews for the Fort Negley Descendants Project, both Gary and Eleanor describe the stone arch placed at the base of the fort by the WPA as “tombstone-like.” I found it a strange coincidence at the time, one of many eerie echoes. To me, the arch resembled a castle, its limestone cut and placed to look like medieval ridges at the top. But they’re right: There’s a cutout in the center shaped exactly like a tombstone. The marker is what’s missing, an absent memorial to a mass grave.
One man we spoke to at a Fort Negley neighborhood event had grown up across the street in the seventies, when the park was still closed to the public. He and his brother used to climb to the top to fly kites—the fort simply a hill again for two young black boys. He told us that the fort had no signage then to explain its history, and at night, the brothers were scared to play there. “We thought it was haunted,” he told us. And in a way, it was. It still is.
The archaeological survey used ground-penetrating radar to find evidence of human remains onsite, some of which the report says “are buried under substantial overburden of asphalt and rubble.” It’s hard not to think of those remains as trapped, as bearing the weight of parked cars and stadium bleachers and sunburned families cheering for home runs, unaware of what lay beneath them—of who lay beneath them. It’s hard not to think about how much Southern land is full of stories like this one, how many cities were built on the backs and bodies of blacks.
When I began researching for the project, I tripped over the word impressed each time I encountered it, as in The Union army impressed black laborers to construct the fort. Impressed, say historical documents, say the informational placards at Fort Negley Park. It struck me that the freedmen and slaves and runaways who built Fort Negley must’ve been anything but impressed by their best hope for freedom, by their saviors as Union officers—their new abductors and overseers. Those Union soldiers patrolled the fort’s border with muskets to protect the contraband laborers from slave owners who might’ve come to collect them, but it seems, too, that a man patrolling a border with a gun hems in just as many people as he keeps out. Impressed laborers, as in pressured: all that weight bearing down on them in the hopes of going free.
I hope that the Fort Negley Descendants Project will allow descendants to reframe the story of the fort in their own words, as it relates to their families and experiences. The project aims to explore Nashville’s Black Legacies of the Civil War, as the subtitle states, to forefront blackness and black opinion about Fort Negley’s past, present, and future. It can feel, at times, as if that black present is missing.
The majority of those involved in the fight for Fort Negley are not black: the parks staff and most of the Friends of Fort Negley, local writers covering the fort, academics researching its past. These stakeholders have worked passionately for decades to protect the fort, for much longer than I’ve been involved. But because the potential developers were not black and the mayor was not black, the fight over the stadium property at times felt like a conversation held almost entirely among white people. Black members belong to most of these groups and categories, but they are the minority.
What do people expect from a Civil War site? What do they need from it? Every time I pass an exit sign for a battlefield just off the highway—the site’s name backgrounded by a faded Confederate flag to match the bumper stickers that share the road with me—I suck my teeth and drive on. The signs list the battlefields as ATTRACTIONS—like natural wonders or amusement parks—and I’ve wondered about the kinds of people drawn to them, and those repelled. Fort Negley has a different kind of legacy—a Union beacon for a kind of freedom atop a hill—but there’s black pain and exploitation there, too.
A week after the FNDP unveiling event, I signed up for my first plantation tour. I wanted to compare how a historical site quite different from Fort Negley framed its past. As we entered the mansion on the Belle Meade property, the guide said that if we’d come through the front door when the family still lived there, the lady of the house would’ve invited the women to join her in the sitting room for iced tea and gossip. Not all of us, I wanted to say, as the only black person in the room. The tour felt too pleasant, too curated for comfort and an Old South charm: high ceilings and finery, a croquet match and a bluegrass concert on the lawn. I followed the white-picket fencing out to the only slave cabin on the plantation’s property, which houses its own burgeoning black descendants project. Close-ups of black faces are pinned to the walls—zoomed-in images of those standing in the background of family photos, those holding the reins of the property’s famed racehorses. That wood cabin, away from the grandeur of the big house, was the only place where I felt looked after.
Our project is off to a modest start, but we hope it will grow. Eventually, an FNDP website will host images and historical documents and transcriptions of employment scrolls and USCT logs related to the fort. We’re hoping to make the hard work of digging backward a little easier. And it’s hard work, for sure. Difficult, painful work.
I combed through digital archives of old images and newspaper clippings, ads for runaways and slave sales. One advertisement offered “several FANCY GIRLS,” and though I’d never heard that term or read it, I knew exactly what it meant. “CASH FOR NEGROES,” read another, in bolded text. I printed that advertisement and pinned it to my office wall, and even now I can’t say why. Dredging the depths of Nashville’s racial history was wrenching enough without having a direct connection to it, without knowing for sure that I shared blood with anyone whose name was listed beside their age, abilities, and price. What our interviewees did—in looking backward and finding themselves—was brave.
The fate of Fort Negley and its land beneath Greer Stadium feels slightly less imperiled now. After the archaeological report was released, the Cloud Hill group stepped down, citing those findings and public backlash. In his first week as Nashville’s mayor, after Megan Barry resigned in March, David Briley made a public announcement at Greer Stadium: He supported the demolition of Greer Stadium and its reincorporation as a public park. “Our country—our city—has never really done what is necessary to acknowledge the sacrifice of the slaves in our country, to atone for what is and will be a great scar on our nation’s history, and to take steps toward reconciliations,” he said. The city is now budgeting and recasting development plans.
Both Eleanor and Gary describe the fort as a place that grounds them. It’s another echo between their interviews: Fort Negley as an anchoring site, a “seed” that grew to connect them to the city and their families’ pasts. Perhaps there’s some relief in that, too, a lessening of the weight pressed down on those beneath the old ballpark. With radar and historical documents, flags planted in the dirt and tweets posted, maybe descendants and advocates and the city of Nashville are finally reaching down to them. Hearing them, lifting them up. Perhaps a seed buried deep in soil and stone and rubble means firmer roots, strong growth once it breaks ground. Maybe knowing what the land holds makes it precious.
“Their remains are on these grounds,” Gary says in his interview. “They’re sleeping, waiting for someone to tell their story. So we’re here.”
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