Say My Name

An African-American Family History

From There to Here

     In an effort to understand my ancestors better, I researched the localities where they lived. My maternal ancestors were slaves in Tennessee. My paternal ancestors were held in captivity in Mississippi. These two lines merged after my grandparents moved to Gary, Indiana during what has been called the Great Migration. Both sets of grandparents ended up living one block from each other. My parents attended the same high school but did not become romantically involved until after my father returned home from World War II. I have also included a history of my hometown, Gary, which has changed drastically from its beginning to the city it is now.

Tennessee and Slavery

     Natchez Trace Parkway  (Missippippi, Alabama, Tennessee)

  In the early 1820’s Tennessee was a beautiful wilderness of towering poplar trees, giant oaks and rich, black soil covered with thick undergrowth. Wild pea vines grew everywhere as high as a man’s knees. Wild animals roamed the woods freely. It was an untamed land where a pioneer could carve out his territory. This wild free land became home to several of my ancestors. Unfortunately, it was not by choice because they were slaves.

      Traders imported considerable numbers of Blacks from other parts of the United States to be resold into what was then the southwestern section of the nation. Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, did a thriving business and Memphis was the slave trading center of the mid-south. Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, in partnership with Rice Ballard, operated much of the slave trade in Tennessee until the late 1830’s. Although between 1826 and 1855 there were laws against it, the domestic slave trade continued.

      There were also those who strongly opposed slave trading. Before 1830, Tennessee was a center of abolitionist activity. The antislavery attitude of White Americans in Tennessee toward the kidnapped Africans was reflected in their legislation and judicial decisions and in certain organized societies and churches. There was literature written in favor of abolition that was unusual considering the political climate of the South. By 1827, Tennessee contained more antislavery societies than did any other state except North Carolina. The first abolitionist periodical in the United States was published in 1819 in Tennessee.

      Abolitionist activity continued intermittently after 1834. However, pro-slavery sentiment grew in Tennessee in direct correlation to the increasing demand for slave labor in both the western part and in the cotton-producing valleys of the eastern section. The trader’s exhortation to “buy more Negroes to raise more cotton to buy more Negroes to raise more cotton” was heeded and by 1855 Tennessee was definitely pro-slavery.

      Tennessee considered itself more humane in its treatment of slaves in comparison to the other states. It enacted a slave code to guarantee that all slaves had shelter, food, clothing, and medical attention as long as they were productive. And it granted protection for the slaves when they were no longer considered useful. This code also provided slaves the right to contract for their freedom. By 1830 there were 4,555 free Blacks in Tennessee and by the beginning of the Civil War, there were 7300 in the state. There was great concern among slave owners who feared the growing number of free Blacks might lead to a revolt among those still enslaved. To prevent this possibility from happening, the state enacted legislation that said no slave should be emancipated unless he was exiled from the state immediately. During 1831, the fear was so great that no free Black citizen was allowed to enter Tennessee.

      In 1835, all Blacks were granted the right to trial by jury. In Memphis and Nashville, free Blacks were allowed to attend private schools, receive religious instruction, sue and be sued, make contracts and inherit property, and enjoy legal marriage as long as both partners were Black. However, after 1834, Blacks were denied the rights of citizenship, which included the right to vote.


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