I am not against construction of the proposed “Middle Eight.” As a formally trained professional historian, much of my work involves researching change over time. From my examination, if it rises, the massive “M8” upon the old Truett Farm will be a prime artifact of Williamson County’s explosive growth, in step with ever-sprawling suburbs, swelling commercial centers, and rapid population influx. History is change.
What concerns me is the unwillingness of certain parties to allow any archeology before construction begins. The message has been, “nothing of significance has transpired on the Truett property, so don’t bother looking.” Being labeled “historically insignificant” would have come as a surprise to the generations of Truetts, their laborers free and enslaved who built and maintained the farm, the community that long depended on their vast orchards, and the researchers who later codified the site into the National Register of Historic Places.
If only some horrific Civil War combat had occurred there, or if the Truett’s owned not four human beings but forty and lived in a much grander mansion, then the powers that be would proclaim the soil supremely historic.
At this point, all I can do is offer findings from my own doctoral research, which reveals that the site in question witnessed many events, including mass liberation.
Somehow not yet common knowledge, Franklin became a major channel of slave escapes in the spring of 1863. At that time, Federal soldiers began building fortifications here, forming a spearhead of strongholds connecting back to Brentwood, Nashville, and beyond. Immediately the region’s enslaved saw these citadels as portals to protection, employment, sustenance, and escape.
At first a trickle and then a flood, fleeing families created a vast above-ground railroad. A major part of that passage to liberation was the Nashville Pike and the adjacent Truett homestead. This causeway witnessed, and facilitated, the exodus – and the numbers were substantial. One in four Tennesseans lived in slavery. In soil-rich Williamson County, the ratio was an astonishing 52 percent. From across the region and points further south they came, overwhelming the men in blue.
Dr. Samuel Boyd of the 84th Indiana Infantry Regiment marveled at the tide:
A larger number of ex slaves are at work on the fortifications [Fort Granger] and at other labor in our army… I am told that an order was recently promulgated here that none but able-bodied should be admitted into the lines. Yet still they come, both great and small.
Positioned nearby, Dr. Henry West of the 98th Ohio attested: “It is astonishing to see the contrabands coming in, drove after drove.” Through this narrow corridor, these masses yearning to breathe free kept moving. A soldier in Nashville reported, “We learn that they were from Williamson County and the vicinity of Franklin. Hundreds of them are daily deserting the service of their owners, who, as a general thing, do not take steps to recover them.”
Will an archeological survey reveal this and other stories? The only way to be certain is to not try at all. Yes, there might be limited results. Historically, the impoverished and mobile tend to leave behind few material possessions. Regardless, the most significant artifact worth preserving here is the story of self-emancipation, involving thousands of Tennesseans, heretofore largely ignored because of the color of their skin and the inconvenient truth that they were forced labor. What does it say about our community if we continue to cherish grand planter mansions, deem only warfare as “historic,” and promote urban sprawl, yet we will readily erase a far greater legacy sown deep into our very soil – one of hope, freedom, and progress?
Dr. Thomas Flagel
Professor of History, Columbia State Community College
PhD in Public History, Middle Tennessee State University (2016)