Groundbreaking Slavery Exhibit Opens at Tennessee State Museum

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A groundbreaking exhibit about the slaves and slaveholders who worked and resided at a distinctive plantation in Tennessee will open next year at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.
 
The exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation, looks at the lives of both the enslaved African Americans and their white owners on the 13,000 acre plantation in Robertson County, Tennessee. The exhibition, which is free to the public, will open Feb. 11 and close Aug. 31, 2014. 
 
Through first and third person accounts, the exhibit will reconstruct the lives of several enslaved people, giving them names, faces, and the details of what happened to them before, during, and after the Civil War.
 
Among the slaves profiled in the exhibit is Jenny Blow Washington. The founder of Wessyngton Plantation, Joseph Washington, purchased 10-year-old Jenny and her sister from a Virginia planter in 1802. The sisters traveled to Wessyngton Plantation in Tennessee with Washington, never to see their mother again. Although slaves could not legally marry, Jenny had a lifelong relationship with a slave named Godfrey Washington and gave birth to at least nine children.  Jenny and her family performed the chores involved with maintaining the large Washington house.  Her known descendants number in the thousands. 
 
“Most museum exhibits cannot provide an in-depth look at individual enslaved people because there is little information available,” according to Lois Riggins Ezzell, the museum’s executive director. “But because of fortunate circumstances of record-keeping and photography by the Wessyngton owners and a wealth of research and oral history by one of the slave descendants, we are able to bring these otherwise forgotten people to life.”

The plantation was established in 1796 by Joseph Washington, who moved to Tennessee from Virginia, and was later inherited by his son, George A. Washington. The Washingtons, through their business dealings, became incredibly wealthy, owning not only Wessyngton but also property and slaves in Kentucky. Wessyngton was one of the largest plantations in Tennessee in 1860 and the largest producer of tobacco in the U.S.  In 1860, the Washingtons were one of the wealthiest families in Tennessee.
 
The Washingtons, with two exceptions, never sold their slaves, and by 1860 owned 274.  Slave families at Wessyngton had three to five generations living together, remarkable in a system that often separated enslaved families, including selling children away from their parents.  
 
The Washingtons, who held on to their wealth during and after the Civil War, retained detailed records about their plantation and slaves. These records, along with letters and diaries, survived into the 20th century and were later donated by Washington family descendants to the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA).

These records were researched at TSLA by a descendent of the Washington slaves, John Baker, Jr., who had seen a photograph of the former Wessyngton slaves in his seventh grade history book. His interest was actively engaged when his grandmother told him that he was related to them. He later met a Washington descendant, who invited him to visit Wessyngton.
 
John did go to the plantation and said “visiting Wessyngton was like stepping back in time.” There he saw a portrait of his great, great grandfather hanging on the wall, along with portraits of other slaves. 
 
As an adult, Baker spent years going through the Wessyngton records at the TSLA. He also interviewed many individuals, ranging from 80 to 107 years old, who were children or grandchildren of the Wessyngton slaves. Baker later wrote a book, The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation, about his lifelong research. This book inspired the Wessyngton exhibit and Baker worked closely with the museum curators as a paid consultant in the development of the exhibition.
 
Baker was also able to locate photographs and drawings commissioned by the Washington family of the former slaves who had remained to work on the plantation after the Civil War. These drawings and photographs remained in the Washington and slave descendant families.
 
“The wealth of sources allows the exhibit to represent the diversity of slave experiences at Wessyngton,” said Rob DeHart, the exhibit’s curator. “Before the Civil War, they individually found ways to create lives and sustain families under very challenging circumstances. Following emancipation, they made different choices regarding their futures.”
 
The exhibit also looks at the important roles of the white women of the big house: Jane Washington, George A.’s wife, and her mother-in-law Mary. Together they supervised the production of finished clothing for the family and slaves. Such a large labor force meant hundreds of garments had to be produced each year. They also oversaw the food rations for the slaves, which according to the records, totaled as much as 42,000 pounds of pork consumed per year.

At the end of the exhibit, a section called “Legacies” will trace what happened to several of the Wessyngton slaves after the Civil War into the 20th century.
 
This exhibit is funded in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
 
About the Tennessee State Museum:
The museum currently occupies three floors, covering approximately 120,000 square feet with more than 60,000 square feet devoted to exhibits. It is located at Fifth and Deaderick in downtown Nashville, Tennessee and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. The museum’s Civil War holdings of uniforms, battle flags and weapons are among the finest in the nation. For more information please visit: www.tnmuseum.org
 


Signal Mountain Genealogical Society Presents Book

The Signal Mountain Genealogical Society presented the book Order of First Families of North Carolina Registry of Ancestors by John R. Brayton, The book contains research information from the days when Tennessee made up the western-most portion of North Carolina.  Many of the residents of Signal Mountain can trace their families to that time and location.  Betty Fassnacht, ... (click for more)

TSLA Releases a New Digital Collection Showcasing Tennessee Folklife

What do roley hole marbles, white oak baskets, shape-note singing, and banjoes have in common? All are examples of Tennessee folk culture or "folkways" available online in the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ newest digital collection: "Tennessee State Parks Folklife Project Collection, 1979-1984." The collection documents folk culture unique to Tennessee and highlights Tennessee's ... (click for more)

2 People Critically Injured In North Chattanooga House Fire

For the second time in three days, a house fire has resulted in tragedy with two people critically injured in North Chattanooga. At 10:13 a.m. on Wednesday, Chattanooga firefighters were dispatched to a reported house fire with entrapment at 220 Houser St. The first firefighters on the scene saw flames shooting out windows and part of the roof. Having been told that people ... (click for more)

Kiser Post-Conviction Hearing To Resume April 6

A post-conviction hearing in which Marlon Duane Kiser is seeking a new trial in the 2001 slaying of Deputy Donald Bond will resume April 6. Attorneys for Kiser, who is on Death Row, said they have additional witnesses to call. Kiser on Tuesday took the witness stand for the first time, blaming the killing on the man he was living with at the time - Mike Chattin. Chattin, who ... (click for more)

Why Ferguson Matters In Chattanooga

The recent verdict in Ferguson has thrown race relations in the spotlight again. It is far too easy to get caught up in the debate as to who was right. But the plain fact is that the community lost, the police force lost and the nation lost. So why does Ferguson matter in Chattanooga? Because a police force mainly composed of whites got into a conflict with a community mainly ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: A Grand Thanksgiving Feast

I’m not really sure how it all came about but a few days before Thanksgiving last year, what was usually a crowded table had dwindled down to just Mother, Aunt Martha and me. Just the idea of getting dressed up made both of them tired, which happens when you are 89 and 87, respectively, and the thought of preparing the traditional feast brought only further groans so I announced ... (click for more)