Growing up in the South, I don’t remember learning about slavery in particular until my high school AP American history class.
We studied the Civil War at length my junior year – its causes, its complexities, and its moments that helped form the state and society we live in now. The teacher at the time explained for the first time what it was really about, and it felt like it was undoing much of what I learned in middle and elementary school.
I am not pointing fingers to blame anyone or my public education for my lack of knowledge on this topic. I’m simply telling you how it was.
One hundred and fifty years ago this week, the 13th Amendment of the Constitution was finally ratified, forbidding slavery in the United States. I scarcely remember learning about that.
I remember more about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement versus the conflict that so heavily influenced that era. Perhaps it’s hard to explain race relations when you don’t live in a diverse community, a place where everyone looks like you.
I’ve traveled a good chunk of the United States, and visited a myriad of museums in my two visits to Washington, D.C., but I can’t say I remember a tour ever focusing itself on a portion of slavery until I went back to Carnton Plantation at Eastern Flank Battlefield Park.
When I moved to Franklin, it was one of the first places I knew I wanted to revisit. I read the fictionalized account of the McGavock family in “Widow of the South.” I quickly became further intrigued by the family who lived in the white house with its gorgeous porches. The first time I took the tour when I was 14, the slave cabins weren’t included. Plus, I figured I would appreciate it more an adult.
Like I remembered, the tour went from the smokehouse to the inside, leading back out to the buildings I never realized were meant for slaves.
Standing in the cabin, it felt small and drafty. I can’t imagine sleeping on what they considered beds. The pouring rain outside only made the place feel darker and dim.
Listening to the tour guide, I was partially amazed at the statistics that I didn’t know. Slightly under four million slaves resided in the U.S. in 1860, the bulk of which were in our region. About 750,000 slaves were in our state in 1860 with 25 percent of residents living here possessing connections to slavery.
Our neighbors in East Tennessee didn’t have as many slaves. In living in Greeneville, Tenn., before coming here, I realized that quickly. The downtown at the time was divided over the issue so much that it had two Presbyterian churches – one for Unionists and one for Confederates.
In Williamson County, however, 2,200 slaves lived here, including people working on the grounds of Carnton.
I am not going to tell you about how the McGavocks handled their slaves. You need to hear it for yourself, which means you need to retake this tour.
You need to experience where someone else lived and moved. It’s hard to walk around in someone else’s shoes in that instance, and I truly think it’s hard to fathom – that our society enslaved a whole group of people based on origin and skin color. It’s easy to point our fingers to those who made the decisions 155 years ago. We can’t change history, but we can move forward to how we treat people now.
And as the world continues to grow more complicated, we need to understand, and we need to know the places in history where we come from before we repeat it.
In a sense we already are, and it needs to stop, and we need to recognize our responsibility and our role.
And it can start here, standing on the dusty wood in the back of a slave cabin.
The final path to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was the reelection of Lincoln by a 55% majority in the 1864 election.