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African American Studies

Journey to Jubilee: From Enslavement to Freedom

What is “Journey to Jubilee”?

Journey to Jubilee dives deeper into the experiences of the Black Americans that were enslaved here at Belle Meade and those that continued to work under labor contracts after the passing of the 13th Amendment. Learn more about the vital presence of the men, women, and children that labored as the backbone of this property. We honor them by telling their stories while continuing our research to provide the full story of what happened here. Using research from primary and secondary sources, this crucial history is explored.

The Beginning of Journey to Jubilee: Reconnecting With History

The development of this tour was done with a great deal of thought and consideration. While the Mansion Tour shares a more general history, Journey to Jubilee allows our historians to share more specific information in an open discussion format when it comes to the topic of enslavement. Offering this tour as a separate experience provides the time to present the primary sources and oral histories that help us share a more fully developed narrative of Belle Meade. Using research that began three decades ago, Journey to Jubilee explores the history of American chattel slavery and encourages an open conversation about the role that this property played within that institution.

In the 1990s, with a desire to share more about the people held in bondage at Belle Meade, staff began researching the history of enslavement here by diving into the archives for information. This research, as well as the information we use today, was drawn from documents, ledgers, and personal letters that mention enslaved individuals and the work they performed on this site. Research continued, but 2017 brought more tangible progress to the project and our interpretation of the site. After extensive research and training sessions on the ethical interpretation of African American history, we began compiling the information available to us to develop a tour that would present this material to the public.

With a lack of written records relating to Belle Meade specifically, it was apparent that, to paint an honest picture of this site and all who lived here, this research would continue with no end in sight. The combination of that research and the incorporation of local and national perspectives has helped us to craft a fuller and more inclusive dialogue. With history being a dialogue between the past and present, our mission is to interpret our history with respect for the past while understanding its relevance in a modern context. The goal of this tour is to provide multiple perspectives, acknowledge the true relevance and nature of slavery, and to encourage guests to discuss and reflect on this topic.

This topic is one that affects more than just our museum, it encompasses the nation as a whole. We aim for continued growth and a better understanding of the full Belle Meade story, but we also want to serve as a resource for the community and those seeking the truth of their own histories. Our Journey to Jubilee program is an open resource for the public and descendants of the people who were enslaved at Belle Meade. If you would like to share any stories from your family history connected to Belle Meade in particular or Nashville in general or need help with researching your own family’s story, please reach out to our curatorial staff:

Preserving stories of the past and continuing this research helps us provide quality historical interpretation for the public and an archive of stories that can survive and be shared in the future.

What We Have Learned So Far…

When John Harding purchased land here in 1807, he brought several enslaved individuals with him to work on his new estate which consisted of 250 acres and a cabin on Richland Creek. By 1850, the Hardings were the fourth largest slaveholders in Davidson County with 93 enslaved people, making them among the top 4.5% of slave owning properties in Middle Tennessee. This number increased to 136 individuals according to the 1860 Census. Belle Meade could never have achieved world prominence as a horse nursery and stud without the hard work and talent of the African Americans who labored here – both before and after emancipation.

Over the years Belle Meade grew to include numerous industries and encompass thousands of acres of land. Men who were enslaved primarily worked as farmers, herdsmen, grooms, millers, dairymen, and tanners. Other men were accomplished carpenters and masons. Nearly all of the structures at Belle Meade were constructed using the labor of the enslaved – they built the slave quarters, blacksmith shop, barns, and mills. The 1853 Greek-Revival style Mansion was also completed using primarily enslaved labor. The beauty of their craftsmanship is still admired today.

The enslaved workers also tended to the horses, mules, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and cashmere goats. Enslaved women commonly worked alongside the men in the fields plowing, planting, and harvesting the crops. Crops grown at Belle Meade were hay, clover, barley, corn, oats, wheat, potatoes, peas, beans, and apples. In addition to working alongside the men, other women worked as house servants, cooks, nursemaids, seamstresses, laundresses, and dairy maids.

Even young children were expected to work in a slavery-based economy. A child could keep the flies off the dining room table, churn butter, carry wood, and collect eggs. Children were also responsible for polishing the silver and the family’s shoes. By the time they reached the age of twelve, children worked in the fields or began learning a trade, and by age fifteen, they were expected to do the same amount of work as an adult.

Typically, the workday began at dawn, and was signaled by the ringing of the farm bell. There were two common systems of organizing labor on a farm like Belle Meade. One way was the task system, in which enslaved people were allowed time off when the work was done. Otherwise, a farm manager might institute the gang system, meaning the workday lasted until sunset. Different times of the year may require implementation of either system. Contracts indicate that enslaved workers at Belle Meade received Sundays, and possibly every other Saturday, as days off, a concession that likely depended on the season.  There is little evidence to indicate methods of discipline at Belle Meade, but the institution of slavery was predicated upon violence and threats as central motivators for work. The Hardings provided direct oversight of their enslaved workers, but they also employed farm managers.  Given the proximity of the property to the Natchez Trace, a huge thoroughfare for the interstate slave trade, it is likely some enslaved individuals feared being sold and sent to work on properties farther south, separating them from their family under possibly harsher conditions. Even still, several enslaved individuals escaped the farm in the early years, including Ben, a blacksmith, Ned, Will, and in 1844, a man named James Harding ran away during the Civil War. The risks associated with self-emancipation were high, but the possible dangers did not deter enslaved individuals at Belle Meade. The risk was worth taking in the quest for freedom.

Who Was Enslaved at Belle Meade?

There is still so much that we do not know about the men, women, and children that were enslaved at Belle Meade. For some individuals, we know where they were born, what their lives were like after Emancipation, and when they died. For these individuals, we have not only have a glimpse into their lives but have documented history of the tremendous, systemic injustices they overcame both before and after emancipation. For some of these people we also have a glimpse into their lives: the families they started, the lives they lead, and the legacy they left behind. 

For other individuals, we may only have a written record of their names once or twice with no additional primary evidence.

For many people enslaved at Belle Meade there is no written record. Our mission is to not only acknowledge their experiences but also provide a safe space for reflection and connection to these individuals.

This list is a compilation of years of research conducted by the staff of Belle Meade as part of an ongoing effort. Sources include the 1860 census, family letters, an 1879 Cash Account Ledger, and the 1879 Farm List.

Many of the duplicate names on this list could be referring to the same person, for example: “Charlotte” and “Charlotte Harding.” We have listed every variation that we have encountered in our endeavor to create the most accurate list possible. 

Names in parentheses ( ) refer to the original enslaver selling to the Harding family (according to primary source documents). 

Names with asterisks * were found on the 1879 Farm List, which may contain white employees along with African Americans.

Names in italics may be a possible spelling since many of the records were handwritten.