Tuesday, February 24, 2015

New Online Application Maps African-American History During the Civil War in Tennessee

As slavery and plantation life dissolved in the crucible of war and occupation during the 1860s, Tennessee became a laboratory of new social arrangements for African Americans. Landscape of Liberation: The African American Geography of the Civil War in Tennessee, which highlights many of the changes in African-American life, is now available online at http://tnmap.tn.gov/CivilWar/freedmen/.

This fully functional (and free) geographic information system application shows 150 wartime sites—refugee camps, early freedmen schools and churches, and recruitment sites for the more than 20,000 black Union soldiers who enlisted from Tennessee. In addition to narrative information, the sites are linked to scans of original primary sources that document historic events. These sources include maps, newspapers, and manuscript items from the collections of the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Tennessee State Museum.

The application is an interactive map showing the landscape of emancipation as it unfolded from 1861 to 1865. Students now have a powerful new tool for viewing the geography of the African-American experience in Tennessee and connecting it with the digitized primary sources from the archives.

The application, a collaborative project between the Tennessee State Library and Archives, the Fullerton Geospatial Laboratory at Middle Tennessee State University, and the State of Tennessee Office of Information Resources, was built with funding from the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.

The African American Geography of Civil War Tennessee is an interactive map showing the landscape of emancipation as it unfolded from 1861 to 1865. Every point on the map is linked to primary documents and images that tell the story of people, places, and events.

Service Impressment Roster, North-Western Railroad, October 13, 1863. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Image available online at: http://tnmap.tn.gov/linked_docs/Roll_of_ImpressedNegroes_NNWRR_1863.pdf

Railroad depot on Church St. from James Allen Hoobler, Cities Under the Gun Photograph Collection, 1862-1986. African American women selling produce at the depot are visible in this photograph. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Image available online at: http://tnmap.tn.gov/linked_docs/Hoobler_RailyardMarket_THS454001.pdf

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How I Came To Write 'The Will'" -- Playwright Sandra Seaton finds inspiration at the Tennessee State Library and Archives

Sandra Seaton is a playwright and librettist. As the author of 10 plays, the libretto for a solo opera, a spoken word piece, and short fiction, Seaton’s work has been performed in cities throughout the country. She received the Mark Twain Award from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature in 2012, and has taught creative writing and African-American literature at Central Michigan University for 15 years as a professor of English.

In this entry on the TSLA Blog, Seaton recalls her visit to the Tennessee State Library and Archives where she found the wills of her great-great grandparents, Cyrus and Eliza, while researching her family history. This discovery later inspired her to write, “The Will,” a play which dramatizes the human consequences of the Civil War as experienced by an African-American family in a small town in Tennessee.

How I Came to Write “The Will”

By Sandra Seaton

   Since childhood, I had heard the story about an ancestor of mine named Israel who sassed a white man and had to be smuggled out of town disguised as a woman. According to the story, when the Ku Klux Klan came to the house looking for Israel, my great-great-grandmother Eliza refused to disclose his whereabouts. Just minutes before, she had hid Israel upstairs under a mattress. After his escape, no one saw or heard from him again.

   I had been told often that my great-great-grandmother, Eliza Webster, her parents Annie and Demps Cherry, and four others (all free blacks) had founded the first black Baptist Church Mt. Lebanon, in Tennessee in the 1840s. I also knew that Eliza and her husband Cyrus had 22 children together, seven of whom died in the smallpox epidemic. That was all I knew. With what resources I had, I had been doing some research (snooping in attics, basements, churches, and talking to people) since 1989. On my trips to Tennessee I went to churches, cemeteries, and courthouses. As a native of Tennessee and through family oral traditions, I knew that an African American free black community existed in middle Tennessee before the Civil War, one with ties to the free black community in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

   I was anxious to find out any information I could about Cyrus and Eliza, so I made a trip to the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. Census records revealed that Cyrus had held farmland in Columbia before the Civil War. An 1850 record listed Cyrus, Eliza and a few of their children. Fascinated by the thought of African Americans of that era holding property in the South, and because of my desire to realize a full picture of the world of African Americans, I took a room at a hotel downtown and spent days at the Archives. I think I spent half the time trying to coax the microfilm readers or rewinding the rolls of film. I followed a number of leads but hadn’t turned up much.

   On my last day at the State Archives, a very hot summer afternoon about ten minutes before closing, I found the wills of my great-great grandfather and grandmother. As I read the two wills, I was awe-struck by their evocation of individuals and a way of life entirely different from the stereotypes about African Americans of their place and time. As I read, I was amazed by the beauty of the language and the care evident in each perfectly crafted sentence. My great-great-grandfather Cyrus’s will showed great planning and care. He was the nurturer, and his will revealed an appreciation for things like teapots, mirrors, and blankets. Throughout the will, he used terms of endearment for each family member, describing one relative as “a gentle, loving man.” My great-great-grandmother’s will, Eliza’s, on the other hand, concerned itself with the disposition of the land, down to the last foot.

   I was startled to notice that both wills mentioned Israel. Cyrus’s will left money and household items to Israel should he return. Eliza’s will contained a touching bequest to Israel pointing any reader of the will away from Israel’s actual destination. Archives are even quieter than libraries, but you know when I read those two wills, I couldn’t help it; I cried and cried. It was as if after all those years, there they were waiting quietly for me to find them.

Cyrus Webster's will, probated on Dec. 4, 1891, located within TSLA's Maury County Microfilm Records, Reel 184, Vol. G.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

Armed with copies of these wills, and at the encouragement of her grandmother, Emma, Sandra Seaton made a visit to Greenwood Cemetery, determined to find out more about Cyrus, Eliza and Israel. There, she made a startling discovery, inscribed in stone on the graves that marked her family members’ final resting place. She wrote:

   I desperately wanted to go to Greenwood. I knew there was no way my aunt was going to go with me, so I found a family friend, Mr. Herbert Johnson, and the two of us put on our old shoes and waded through the grass. Although Mr. Herbert, who was in ill health at that time, needed a cane to get around, nothing could stop this committed history buff from making the trip to Greenwood. We had looked at just about every tombstone we could find when we came to a group over in one corner that faced away from the rest. There they were, my family’s graves, just like Grandma Emma had said—Cyrus, Eliza, Eliza’s parents, Annie and Dempsey Cherry, seven little graves off in a corner, and next to Cyrus a very large monument with the name Anna Sanders at the top.

   The inscriptions were barely readable. I had heard of people doing grave rubbings so we went to a nearby drycleaner’s for some thin paper and to Kmart for crayons. Back then, grave markers could tell whole stories. After reading their wills at the archives, it was no surprise that the tombstones were finely scripted. We rubbed and rubbed, but were only mildly successful in making out dates for Cyrus and Eliza. For Anna, I was able to make out something that I didn’t understand, the words “cousin of Israel Grant.” Fresh out of paper, Mr. Herbert and I went to an auto shop next door. Maybe they had something we could use. I felt a little uneasy about announcing our purpose, poking around the white cemetery. A young white guy at the counter was casual about the whole thing. He had family over in Greenwood, couldn’t help out with paper, but was on his way home for lunch; he’d bring back a local historian’s book on the cemetery. Just look in the seat of my pick-up he told me.

   Sure enough, an hour later, the car window rolled down, the book lay there on the seat, waiting. The section on Cyrus and Eliza listed their inscription and the names of the graves of their seven young children and no more. There was no information on Anna Sanders. I called the local historical society. The woman on the phone told me to go to the grocery store, get some cornstarch or flour, throw it on the inscriptions, and dust it off. I threw cornstarch on Cyrus’s mother Anna’s grave and contemplated the words, “cousin of Israel Grant;” they just didn’t make any sense. My grandmother had always said we were related to Ulysses S. Grant. So was Anna the Grant connection? A light dusting revealed something I never expected to find: “Anna Sanders, 1790-1852, mother of Cyrus Webster and consort of Israel Grant.” Consort of Israel Grant! Cyrus had erected a monument over his mother’s grave, one of the largest in the cemetery. And he was proud of his ancestry, not only proud that a white man was his father, but that his mother was the common-law wife to this man, a relationship he cared enough about to inscribe on her tombstone. Here was Cyrus’s legacy, the example of a courageous man, courageous enough during slavery, 1852, to announce this relationship to a hostile world, and honest enough to show his love for his father by naming his first born son Israel.

From that day forward, fired with curiosity and ambition, Sandra Seaton set out to write a play that dramatized the people whose characters were expressed in these wills. She wrote “The Will” shortly thereafter—a play that reveals both the conflicts of Reconstruction and the range of African American culture.

Readers may learn more about “The Will” and other works by Sandra Seaton by visiting her website at: http://www.sandraseaton.com/. The Tennessee State Library and Archives is grateful to have had a part in helping Sandra discover her family’s history. We hope this blog post will inspire you to visit us and possibly help you write your own family’s story.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

TSLA Remembers Brown v. Board of Education with Southern School News Digital Collection

During Black History Month, the Tennessee State Library and Archives is making available a new collection that showcases some of the highlights of the Civil Rights Movement. The Southern School News Digital Collection is an online compendium of the journal Southern School News, a monthly publication by the Southern Education Reporting Service (SERS) reporting on developments in education arising from the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas U.S. Supreme Court opinion from May 17, 1954. This full text searchable digital collection is comprised of 11 volumes with 12 issues containing 12 to 24 pages each that were published from September 1954 through June 1965 in Nashville.


Beginning with the publication of the first issue on September 3, 1954, each journal reported about desegregation of U.S. public schools state by state through primary documentation and statistical evidence. Changes in public school education in 17 United States southern and border states as well as the District of Columbia were communicated to benefit educational administrators and officials. The goal of the publication was to provide “a reliable, central source of information on developments in education arising from the United States Supreme Court decision declaring compulsory racial segregation in the public schools to be unconstitutional.”

Patricia Haye’s first day at John Coleman Elementary near Smyrna, Tennessee 1959. Southern School News Collection, Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA).

Southern School News published its mission in every issue, often on page four, along with a listing of correspondents and the board of directors. The journal unequivocally vowed to document all progress towards desegregation of public schools from the smallest detail to the largest university occurrences stating:

"Southern School News is the official publication of the Southern Education Reporting Service, an objective, fact-finding agency established by southern newspaper editors and educators with the aim of providing accurate, unbiased information to school administrators, public officials and interested lay citizens on developments in education arising from the U.S. Supreme Court opinion of May 17, 1954 declaring segregation in the schools unconstitutional. SERS is not an advocate, is neither pro-segregation nor anti-segregation, but simply reports the facts as it finds them, state by state."

1957 Map of southern-border region, segregation-desegregation status by counties. Southern School News Collection, Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA).

The board of directors for the publication was drawn from a wide variety of political and educational backgrounds to include both segregation and desegregation interpretations of the Supreme Court ruling. Members of the board included such distinguished Tennessee leaders as presidents and chancellors of Fisk and Vanderbilt Universities as well as George Peabody College. Also included were the editors of both The Nashville Banner and The Nashville Tennessean.

1962 Tennessee gubernatorial candidates with Jackie Robinson. From left: Carl Fry, P.R. Olgiati, Robinson, Former Governor Frank G. Clement, and William Farris. Southern School News Collection, Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA).

Visit the Southern School News Collection on TeVA's website at http://tn.gov/tsla/TeVAsites/SouthernSchoolNews/index.htm to view more digital copies of this publication held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.