James Thomas was well-acquainted with powerful white southerners, intimate even. He was born in 1827 to an enslaved woman and John Catron, a justice of the supreme courts of the United States and Tennessee. During his childhood in Nashville, Thomas worked as an assistant to John Esselman, one of the most successful physicians in the city. Later, he became the personal assistant to Andrew Jackson Polk, a cousin of President James K. Polk and the owner of more than three hundred enslaved people.
Thomas used those connections to his advantage. As a barber, a practice that he began while enslaved and which he continued after gaining legal freedom in 1851, Thomas earned as much as $100 a month from a clientele that included William Giles Harding, the owner of the Belle Meade plantation and one of the wealthiest men in Nashville. It was from Harding and similar clients that Thomas gained not only a considerable income but also an understanding of what Christmas meant to them.
To antebellum white southerners, Christmas was a time of merriment—and fear. In an autobiography begun in 1903, Thomas remembered that “the holidays in the south was a time that all expected a good week of solid enjoyment.” There were cock fights and card playing throughout Nashville and “feasting and dancing” at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. There were also celebrations among enslaved people, as owners sometimes “gave their servants something in the way of a present.” Some did so with trembling hands. Thomas recalled that “in Nashville before Christmas would be posted in conspicuous places the ordinance for the regulation of ‘slaves,’ ‘free Negroes,’ and ‘Mulattoes.’” Those ordinances belied the merriment. They showed that Christmas in antebellum Nashville could become the most dangerous time of the year.1
It certainly was in 1856. The presidential race that year featured three contenders: Democrat James Buchanan, Republican John C. Frémont, and Know-Nothing Millard Fillmore, a former president who white Tennesseans reviled for his support of the diplomatic recognition of Haiti and reception of its “NEGRO ambassadors.”2 In the midst of the heated election, rumors of slave insurrections to take place swirled across the South. They reached Nashville just before Christmas. Politicians in the state capital, certain that enslaved people had been emboldened by the abolitionist Frémont and Fillmore campaigns, quickly sent arms and ammunition to surrounding towns supposedly on the cusp of rebellion. Within Nashville, the city council increased the slave patrol, forbade black schools and black preaching, and prohibited all assemblies of black people after sundown. In fact, Harding chaired a committee tasked with enforcing legislation expelling free blacks like Thomas from Tennessee.
I appreciated the irony, then, when my free black self purchased a ticket to “100 Years of Christmas,” the holiday-themed tour at Harding’s Belle Meade Plantation. Our tour group consisted of two Asian-American women and me—it was, I assumed, a group where our middle-age white tour guide (I’ll call him Chip) might feel less inclined to romanticize Belle Meade, a place that had 136 enslaved workers by the 1850s. Maybe we would hear about Harding’s anti-abolitionist rants—Thomas remembered him coming into his barbershop accusing white northerners of “stealing the negroes” before starving them—or his attempts to expel free blacks from Tennessee.3 Maybe we would hear about the fear that gripped Belle Meade and its owner during at least one of its Christmases past.
Those hopes were misplaced. As we entered the foyer of Belle Meade’s mansion, I stared at a painting of a black man leading a horse. Eventually, Chip called attention to it. He told us about Robert Green (Chip called him “Bob,” as Harding surely did), a man who was brought to Belle Meade as an enslaved infant, became the lead hostler at the plantation, and stayed on as its highest paid employee after Emancipation. To hear Chip tell it, Green’s story is one of black achievement and white moderation, accentuated by Green’s eventual pay and the fact that all of the pall-bearers at his funeral were white. To me, it sounded like a case of insufficient reparations.
That was the last our group heard about African Americans at Belle Meade until the end of the tour. After passing through ornately decorated hallways and dining rooms and hearing stories about the white men, women, and children who woke up to Christmas in the mansion’s plush bedrooms, we finally descended to the kitchen. There, on an adjacent wall, hung pictures of two black women, Harriet Vaulx and Susanna Carter, and one seemingly biracial man, Joe Carter. While Chip admitted that he knew little about Vaulx, he informed us that Susanna Carter was, like Robert Green, brought to Belle Meade as an enslaved infant. He noted with a hint of admiration that she became the head cook and, following Emancipation, the third highest employee at Belle Meade. Joe Carter was her son. His father is unknown. At least that’s what Chip said when I asked.
Chip said a number of other ambiguous things, too. Well-intentioned, he told our group that the stories of the “rich white men” who ran Belle Meade were easy to recover while “these stories”—those of Green, Carter, and Vaulx—are “much more difficult to find.” Assuming a more optimistic tone, he assured us that “we need to find these voices” of black folks at Belle Meade and that efforts were being made to do just that. In fact, he concluded, we could learn more about those efforts if we just ventured down to the slave cabins. The tour was over, though.
With the end of the guided portion of “100 Years of Christmas,” I walked the short distance from the kitchen to the slave cabins. Thanks to the work of Luvenia Butler and the Journey to Jubilee project, the walls of the two slave cabins are filled with pictures of the black people who worked at Belle Meade during slavery and freedom. There are excerpts from their autobiographical writings, artifacts including pottery that capture their daily lives, and signs providing compelling historical context to black life at Belle Meade. There are resounding black voices, supposedly missing but somehow found.
For the time being, there is also a poster titled “Enslaved at Christmastime.” Below the reminder that Christmas represented a “rare time of merriment” for some enslaved people but a time of “extra toil and continued deprivation” for others, there is a quote from Henry Brown, one of thousands of formerly enslaved people who gave interviews for the Federal Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration. Brown recalled that his owner “Dr. Rose gave me to his son, Dr. Arthur Barnwell Rose.” He remembered that he had been given away “for a Christmas present.”
Christmastime once showed James Thomas how tenuous even his freedom might be in a world in which black people were inherited and raffled, transacted and gifted. On December 23, 1856, he wrote to his nephew, telling him that “there has been some disturbances through the Country in consequence of a rumor (false I have no doubt) that the Negroes had an Insurrection on foot to be carried into effect Christmas.” Those rumors, he continued, had “resulted in hanging a few and the whipping of A few thousand.” They had placed him in grave danger. And so, Thomas fled north. He wrote his letter from Illinois.4
Three weeks later, the editor of the Daily Nashville Patriot re-printed an editorial from a Richmond newspaper promising some “plain sober facts” in the wake of “rumors of insurrections…beginning to die away.” The editorial proclaimed that “there has been but one successful insurrection…and that, the Island of Hayti.” Of course, that was a hell of an exception. Realizing that, the editor advised readers to “turn away, however, from this single exceptional case…of Hayti” and contemplate “where else in…the New World, is the African the master now, where he has ever been the slave before?” The answer was nowhere. So, he concluded, his readers could sleep easy knowing that Toussaint Louverture was not in their midst. They could dream white supremacist dreams by forgetting their frightful Christmas past and “turn[ing] away” from Haiti, that ever-present example of militant black resistance.5
And dream they did. They dreamed our present right into existence and left us the challenge of envisioning a better world yet to come. Of course, the response to that challenge began long ago. It permeates the same black history that the Patriot and Harding tried to silence and that is now recovered by the Journey to Jubilee project. But the response can continue to amplify now, at Christmas, that season when antebellum white southerners sought repression and forgetting precisely because they knew it was a ripe occasion for revolution and remembering.
Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and working on a book manuscript entitled, An Experiment in Self-Government: Haiti in the African-American Political Imagination. Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.
- James Thomas, From Tennessee Slave to St. Louis Entrepreneur: The Autobiography of James Thomas, ed., Loren Schweninger (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984), 59. ↩
- “Keep it before the People,” Fayette Observer, July 17, 1856. ↩
- Thomas, From Tennessee Slave to St. Louis Entrepreneur, 78. ↩
- Letter from Thomas to John Rapier Jr., December 23, 1856 in Thomas, 203–4. ↩
- “Insurrections and the Futility and Folly of Them,” Daily Nashville Patriot, January 13, 1857. ↩