Say My Name

An African-American Family History


To Secede or Not To Secede

     The state of Tennessee sided with the rest of the south in the sectional controversy preceding the War but tried to avoid secession. In the election of 1860, Tennessee gave its electoral votes to the Constitutional Union party, a party which took no stand on the slavery issue. When the war broke out the following year, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris led his reluctant state into the Confederacy. In the vote of 1861 on secession from the Union, practically all the eastern counties were opposed while most of the western counties, the counties where my relatives lived, and the middle counties were in favor of secession. The correlation of lucrative cotton crop to this vote was as pointed as was that of the high proportion of black population in those localities.

      Tennessee was the last state to secede and the first to return to the union. After the war, an unpopular minority state government made peace with the federal government which enabled Tennessee to escape prolonged military occupation. However, the mainly agricultural economy suffered from poverty in the late 1880’s. Excluded from Abraham Lincoln’s plan for emancipation in 1861, it was the only state to free the slaves by popular vote. They were officially emancipated in Tennessee on February 25, 1865. In Hickman, Dyer, Weakley and Haywood counties, owners refused to free their slaves until the end of the summer, in order to harvest the crops. My ancestors lived in Haywood and Dyer counties.

      In May 1866, Tennessee extended all the rights of citizenship to Blacks except the right to marry whites, serving on juries and voting. In 1867, Blacks in Tennessee won the right to vote but not to marry Whites. This may have had a direct affect upon my ancestors. On the 1870 census, Charles Featherston, a White man, and Tildy Featherston, a former slave, lived side by side but did not claim to be married. Tildy’s occupation was listed as “keeping house,” the occupation used by housewives. All of her children, including my great-grandmother Katie are listed with the surname Featherston and the race as mulatto. Charles never married even though his other brothers had married early in life. It is my belief that he was the father of most of Tildie's children.

Dyersburg Outrage

 Although Tennessee may been progressive in its attitude toward its Black citizens in comparison to other states, there was still a great deal of fear and resentment toward the emancipated slaves. I ran across a horrible example of this fear in an old Tennessee newspaper. The story ran in the State Gazette, a newspaper published in Dyersburg, Tennessee. The story struck me immediately because of the close proximity to my ancestors location. The following story was published August 29, 1874.

      “GREAT EXCITEMENT AT TRENTON; SIXTEEN NEGROES TAKEN FROM JAIL AND SHOT --Editor State Gazette

      On last Monday evening, Trenton was thrown into considerable excitement by the arrival of about twenty mounted men, well armed, and having in charge twelve negro prisoners, heavily chained and secured to each other with padlocks. The facts are these. The negroes in and about Picketville armed themselves and banded together or the purpose of killing certin whites in the neighborhood and taking possession of their stock, produce, farms and whatever else they wanted. On last Saturday night, as people were leaving the church, two young men who were little in advance of the crowd, suddenly discovered large numbers of armed negroes, in , and on both sides of the road and without warning, they were fired into, killing one of their mules and wounding the other. The youths were unharmed and returned to the church to sound warning. On the following Monday, one Negro confessed his guilt and informed on forty other negroes, twelve of whom were arrested and lodged in Trenton jail, after being tried before Squires HUNT, FLY, JORDON and PARKER. Since writing the above, I have learned from good authority that on Tuesday night, the twelve negroes, and four others since captured were taken from the Trenton jail, and taken to the edge of the town and shot dead. OBSERVER.

      LAST THURSDAY DYER COUNTY--and the whole country were thrown into a high state of excitement by the report that Trenton had been attacked by 500 negroes, armed and mounted and that the town was the scene of a bloody conflict between the races. This turned out to be false. But the whites, fearing trouble, had formed companies in different parts of the county and marched into Trenton, armed and ready for any emergencies. The negroes were taken from jail and shot as stated by our correspondent. This piece of lawlessness will damage Trenton and Gibson county to the amount of many thousand dollars. Governor BROWN has promptly offered a reward of $500 for the apprehension of the murderers of the negroes. In public meeting, the people of Gibson county condemned the murder of the negroes by masked men.”

      This information is couched between notices of the county fair and gossip about a resident being kicked out of the mason. The incident and the attention given it speaks volumes about the attitude of the white citizens of Gibson and Dyer counties during the time of reconstruction. Gibson was noted as being the most violent of all the counties in Tennessee. The white residents of the county did not adjust very well to the ending of slavery. Consequently, when the confederate soldiers returned home after the war, they literally fought the change by forming the Ku Klux Klan. Black citizens were terrorized by the white-sheeted thugs. It became necessary in 1868 for the governor to order martial law because of the multitude of acts of violence against Blacks.

      In my research I found that many of the outrages brought before the Freedmen’s Bureau in Tennessee were due to blacks being denied reunions with their spouses. In many cases, the Black husband was threatened, beaten and sometimes murdered by a White man who would not allow the wife to return to her husband. This was the part of the emotional environment in which my ancestors lived.

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