In the late 1970s, a descendant of the Jackson family presented Belle Meade with carved antique gourd that was believed to have been presented to the Jackson family by a Belle Meade employee in the 1890s. The gourd was carved with images of the famed racehorse, Iroquois, several farm animals, and a heart containing the initials, “Gen. J.” For General Jackson and the artist remained unidentified. No one gave the gourd a second thought and it was added to the collection and placed on display.

With new scholarship, we know the gourd has more of a story to tell. The art of carving gourds or “calabashes” is an ancient one. For centuries, throughout Africa, various groups have been carving gourds to serve as vessels for carrying water, for serving food, and to simply to serve as works of art. Today, these beautiful works of art can be seen in museums around the world.

In the 19th century, American slaveholders believed it was their duty to Christianize and civilize the African race. Many believed they, like the Native American, had no native religion, no native art, and no native culture. This set of opinions could not be farther from the truth and the gourd in the Belle Meade Mansion is proof.

Belle Meade Gourd

The gourd serves as evidence that African Americans in the 19th century had retained many of their traditions and customs from Africa and passed them down to younger generations. As slaveholders tried hard to civilize a “savage and untamed” race by removing any trace of their native culture, African Americans held on quite tightly to their native traditions.

In the 1890s, the employees at Belle Meade farm were mostly African Americans who had served in slavery only 30 years earlier. The unknown individual who  created the gourd in 1897 was likely a second or even third generation American and  a former slave or child of former slaves. With the existence of the gourd and other documentary evidence, it can be seen that the individuals working at Belle Meade farm knew a great deal of their history and native traditions. Archaeological digs conducted in past years have revealed beads and charms that can be connected to African culture. Certain fruits and vegetables raised by Belle Meade employees have native African roots like okra, gourds, and melons. Even church services on the Belle Meade farm were conducted with certain music and ceremonies with African ties.

All of this evidence can clearly prove that the African Americans who were enslaved at Belle Meade and later worked as freedmen were aware of their African roots and passed treasured traditons on to younger generations.

John Lamb, Curator

 

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