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African American Studies

Journey to Jubilee: From Enslavement to Freedom

What is “Journey to Jubilee”?

Journey to Jubilee explores the stories of the African Americans who were brought to, and born at, Belle Meade from 1807 through the years following Emancipation. Discover more about their vital presence on this property and their relationship with the family until the close of Belle Meade in 1906. Many men, women, and children were present here from enslavement to freedom. They endured, and we want to honor them by telling their story. Using research from primary sources, nearly one hundred years of this crucial history is explored.


Why We Started?

You might ask “Why are the tours separate? Why do you have both a Mansion Tour and a Journey to Jubilee Tour? Why can’t you combine these histories into one comprehensive tour?”

Those are great questions. And we love answering them. By having separate programming that focuses on the enslaved, it gives our historians the opportunity to share more primary sources and oral histories with guests, and therefore present a more fully developed narrative of Belle Meade. The Mansion Tour provides our guests with an overview of the Harding-Jackson family, enslaved individuals, the horse industry, and various artifacts. The Journey to Jubilee Tour deeply explores the history of slavery as an institution, at Belle Meade specifically, and it encourages discussion about how these historical accounts affect race relations today.

Therefore, we believe this subject deserves its own dedicated programming. 


How We Started?

Desiring to share more about the history of the enslaved, in the late 1990s, staff began researching the history of enslavement at Belle Meade by looking through the archives for documents, ledgers, and personal letters mentioning enslaved individuals or their work. Our interpretive efforts took a giant step forward, when in 2017, our staff underwent an intensive training session on the ethical interpretation of African American history. But our efforts did not stop there.  

While a lack of written records specific to our site is at times a challenge, we incorporate information from a wide variety of perspectives (local and national) to craft an inclusive dialogue. We continue to search for more details of our history, in order to paint an honest picture of this site and all who lived here. Our mission is to interpret our history with respect for the past and understand its relevance in a modern context. History is a continuing dialogue between the past and present. 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. 


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 We Have Discovered So Far…

It is our desire to discover as much as possible about these individuals. Due to the limited information available in written records, most of the names below do not have additional details at this time. We want to honor these individuals by listing their names and we will update this page as more primary source documents are uncovered.

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.