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Saving What Matters

Bringing Franklin’s Full History to Life with the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County

In 1829, an enslaved man named Harvey was sold to Atkins and Bethenia McLemore, plantation owners near Thompson’s Station. After Atkins died, Bethenia sold Harvey to her son, William Sugars (“W.S.”) McLemore, a cavalry officer and judge. W.S. owned the Franklin land that became Hard Bargain, a neighborhood of Black farmers and laborers.

Harvey McLemore learned valuable skills during more than 30 years of enslavement and as a free man sharecropping on farms, including the Carnton Plantation. In 1880, he purchased four Hard Bargain lots from W.S. While many freed slaves were starving with nowhere to go, Harvey, through ingenuity and grit, paid $400 he had saved in a can and kept buried. He built a house for his wife Eliza and himself and farmed his remaining lots before selling them. He died in the late 1800s and his daughter Mary McLemore Matthews remained in the home and raised her children there, including daughter Maggie, who operated a beauty salon in the front hallway. According to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, barbershops and beauty salons have played an important role in African American culture. Besides being places for hair care services, they’ve acted as gathering spots for Black people to freely discuss community affairs, local gossip and politics. Maggie lived in the house until her death in 1989. Laverne Holland, the last of Harvey’s descendants to live in the house, now lives next door.

By the mid-1990s, Harvey’s home was in disrepair. At the same time, local historian Thelma Battle attended the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers in Boston. “While I was there, I visited the Slave House,” recalls Thelma. The Royall House and Slave Quarters housed the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts and the slaves who provided their lavish lifestyle. Today it’s a museum that intertwines stories of wealth and bondage. “I attended a reception in the building,” Thelma says, “and the feeling, the realization of what had taken place there. I came away with a duty to inform others of what I had seen and heard.”

Thelma, along with Mary Mills, Bazelia Harris, Louise Patton, Mary Pearce (former executive director of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County), and County Historian Rick Warwick formed the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County (AAHSWC) to tell important stories of African Americans in the community. In 1997, The Heritage Foundation partnered with Habitat for Humanity to purchase the McLemore House from Maggie Matthews’ estate. The Foundation sold the home to the AAHSWC for $1 and after years of fundraising and restoration, it’s now a museum filled with storyboards, artifacts, furniture and a setup of Maggie's beauty parlor. “Our first fundraiser was a fish fry in the Williams’ backyard with tents and folding chairs,” explains Thelma. “Fish fries are part of African American culture. People stopped by to talk and eat fish, and we sold out.” 

The AAHSWC has since raised funds through grants, donors and its annual black-tie affair. “Mary Mills and Louise Patton even mortgaged their homes to help get the McLemore House restored,” says Alma McLemore, AAHSWC president and a descendant of Harvey by marriage. She worked for Middle Tennessee Electric for 38 years and serves on the City of Franklin’s Housing & Planning Commissions, the Civil War Historic Commission, and boards of numerous nonprofits. Alma believes we are all equal children of God who have important stories to share. “I want us to understand how our stories are connected,” she says.

One of seven children raised by sharecroppers who worked on the Short Farm, Alma was born and raised in the historic Natchez Street community. She remembers walking in downtown Franklin with her grandmother, her brother and his friends, and the boys finding Civil War bullets and shells on the ground and taking them to the Carter House. “Living in the community where I was born and raised is a blessing,” Alma says.

After the Civil War, formerly enslaved residents built a thriving district of businesses, schools and churches known as the Natchez Street neighborhood. Last year the AAHSWC purchased the Merrill-Williams House at 264 Natchez Street. The Society is partnering with the Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation to create a heritage site for the study of local African American history and add to the investment of Franklin’s full history. 

Moses Merrill, an enslaved person for 40 years, was deeded the property after the Civil War. Tom A. Williams, son of A.N.C. Williams, formerly enslaved and a popular Franklin merchant, acquired the property and built the house in 1908. The Williams family welcomed Natchez community members to their home for art shows and music performances during the segregation era.

As gentrification affects Franklin communities, historic homes are being torn down. Thankfully, donors like Calvin LeHew, Emily Magid and many others stepped in to save the Merrill-Williams House from demolition. Magid, a Franklin philanthropist who was integral to the preservation of the Franklin Theatre, says, “The African American Heritage Society has a vital role in furthering the story of Franklin and saving what matters. Preservation requires that we mend, tend and blend historical significance with community participation.” Or as Alma McLemore explains while discussing the importance of preserving history, “We’re here because they were there.”

To donate, become involved or for more information please visit the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County website at www.AAHSWC.org.

About Mary Mills

Mills, 96, was born on the 4th of July in Franklin and is a pioneer in Williamson County education, serving both before and after public school integration. She spent over 39 years as a teacher and principal in the Franklin Special School District and 25 years on the board of Williamson County Medical Center. She is pictured in front with AAHS Board Emeritus members Mary Walker and Eleanor Bright (now deceased).

About Thelma Battle 

Battle has pioneered the field of African American Cultural Studies in Williamson County. She has published several books including Raining in the House and Leaking Outdoors and We Ran Until Who Lasted Longest. Her genealogical research has helped many families trace their roots to Williamson County and she is a recipient of a J. Paul Getty Preservation Award and a Certificate of Merit from the Tennessee Historic Commission.

About Emily Magid and Alma McLemore

Both Magid and McLemore have hearts for service and historic preservation. McLemore is President of the African American Heritage Society. Alma Lee, as she is known to her close friends, is a Franklin native who attended what were then known as 'colored schools' and was in the first integrated class at Franklin High School. Magid grew up in Nashville and Franklin, favors tie-dyed clothes and colorful hair, and is a longtime volunteer with the Heritage Foundation. She’s also a philanthropist who believes in furthering the story of Franklin.

Black History Month

Since 1976, February has been officially designated as Black History Month to recognize the achievements of African Americans in U.S. history. In 1915, 50 years after the Thirteenth Amendment, historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The group sponsored a national Negro History Week in 1926, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The event inspired community celebrations honoring influential Black Americans. In the 1960s, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month on college campuses, and then became designated by every U.S. president since Gerald Ford.

Today, Black History Month commemorates the legacies of Black activists, civil rights pioneers, leaders in industry, politics, science, culture and more.

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