March 10, 2021, Nancy DeGennaro, Daily News Journal
In a far corner of Evergreen Cemetery on Highland Avenue near Murfreesboro Police Department headquarters is an open field. It’s lumpy in some places where the ground is visibly sunken.
Beneath that fertile soil are the unmarked graves of at least 30 people once enslaved at Oaklands Plantation.
“They don’t disturb anything over there because they know people are buried without headstones. … But they don’t know how many,” explained Mary Watkins with the African American Heritage Society of Rutherford County, which is partnering with Oaklands Mansion historic site to build a memorial to honor the enslaved.
Owned by Dr. James and Sally Murfree Maney, Oaklands Plantation was once home to one of the largest slave-trafficking plantations in Middle Tennessee, Oaklands Mansion Executive Director James Manning said.
The Maneys inherited nearly 20 slaves from Sally’s father, Revolutionary War Col. Hardy Murfree, for whom Murfreesboro is named. Over the six decades the Maneys owned Oaklands, “they just kept buying and selling … hundreds of people,” Manning said.
“These are individuals who would have built Oaklands, physically. The enslaved people dug the clay from the soil, made the bricks and physically built the house from the ground up,” Manning said.
When they died, the enslaved were buried in an area of the plantation located less than a mile from the Maney family home. Graves aren’t marked and death certificates were never issued, Watkins said.
In 1872, 12 years before the Maney home and land was auctioned, Dr. Maney sold 20 acres to the city of Murfreesboro for $5,000 to use as a public cemetery, including the resting place of those the family enslaved.
A stark contrast in burials
The area where those enslaved were buried was named Section M and became the sole public burial place for Black residents in the community until desegregation. All that remains of a crude memorial to those buried there is a dilapidated, rusty obelisk that is illegible.
Nearly 20 years after Evergreen was established, Confederate Circle was established at Evergreen, where bodies of more than 2,000 soldiers who died at the Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro were interred in a mass grave. Those who are known are listed in a stately marble obelisk in the center of the plot.
“There’s quite a disparity in the two burial grounds. (The enslaved grave site) has had no attention given to it and it’s beyond time to put some community resources into identifying any individuals and letting our community know about the history of the cemetery,” Manning said.
Manning said there aren’t any records of slave deaths on the plantation. But if they existed, they were wiped out during a fire that destroyed the records-keeping area at Evergreen in 1940.
“Oaklands has not done our due diligence to research and interpret the African American contribution to the site in the 60 years we’ve been a museum. So we’re asking for the African American community to help us,” Manning said. “We are hoping this project will turn up documentation that was all burned up, if somebody’s got something at a church, in archives, (at funeral homes).”
Manning and Watkins hope to build a stately memorial of stone. The project will begin once the necessary $5,000 is raised to pay for the custom-built structure that will be placed in the cemetery.
“I think (the project is) important because a lot of people do now know that this was a place where slaves and African Americans are buried and could only be buried here until desegregation,” Watkins said. “There are some people who’ve got ancestors here and don’t even know it.”
Plans for the project are coming together just as a renovation of Evergreen Cemetery is underway. The demolition and construction of new facilities will create some leeway for building a sidewalk and sitting area where visitors can mourn.
The memorial will then become part of Oaklands Mansion’s developing interpretation of the lives of enslaved at the site. Manning said he’d also love to see an archaeologist survey the land.
“We want to be able to memorialize them. And we want to give visitors information about the house, where they worked. Then they can come to Evergreen Cemetery and pay respects,” Manning said.
Watkins said the memorial will also become part of programming through the African American Heritage Society of Rutherford County.
“This will be part of our living history tour. That’s why we want to put markers out here — for the people who come after us so they can know how important African Americans are and what part they played in building the community,” Watkins said.
Watkins said the project “will bring some closure” to the Black community’s dark past with Oaklands.
“But it’s going to take more than (the memorial project) for healing. There’s a lot of healing got to be done,” Watkins said.
Manning said he hopes Oaklands can be a part of that healing by confronting the past and incorporating the story of the enslaved as a major part of the museum’s interpretation.
Audrey Creel, a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University, has done her thesis on the enslaved at Oaklands. She put together a presentation and exhibit, “The Untold Story of the Maney Family Slaves: A Case Study in Slavery in Murfreesboro.” The museum website features stories of the enslaved who she’s managed to find.
“That’s why we need work from an advisory committee. We have our first African American (on the committee) Bobbie Johnson. She and I are building this community with people who are willing to contribute time and energy and knowledge, hopefully guiding us so we can use Oaklands resources to be more relevant to the community,” Manning said. “We want to hear from people of color.”