Prior to the end of the American Civil War, Belle Meade Plantation was home to a large population of enslaved African Americans. The Harding family was one of the largest slave-holding families in Nashville.
John Harding brought two slaves with him when he settled at Dunham’s Station. Ben worked in the farm’s blacksmiths shop. A domestic servant named Dicey had been purchased from Giles Harding for seventy dollars on October 6, 1806. It may be inferred from the low selling-price that Dicey was an older woman, probably past childbearing age; she may have helped to rear John Harding in his youth.
John purchased four slaves in 1807: Ned, Isaac, Jenny, and Molly. In 1810 John inherited Patrick, a common laborer, from his father; Giles Harding’s will implies that Patrick had worked at Belle Meade previously but was not legally transferred until that year.
Initially, John and Susannah Harding worked side by side with their enslaved workers to operate the farm. John often traveled the Natchez Trace buying and selling both land and slaves.
Over the years, Belle Meade’s population grew steadily. As the farm became more specialized many of the enslaved workers developed skills, including millwork, stonemasonry, woodworking, and blacksmithing. Other laborers worked as house servants. Small parts of the farm’s enslaved population were field hands, but at harvest time other workers were pulled from their jobs to work in the fields.
As a blacksmith Ben was more valuable and difficult to replace than a typical slave; he ran away in 1818 and was never found. The same year John Harding purchased Ned, who escaped after only a few months. Skilled laborers who escaped slavery faced less difficulty in securing jobs in Free states and territories than field workers.
It is probable that Belle Meade Plantation had at least two sets of quarters for enslaved workers and possible two cemeteries. Whitewashed cabins near the mansion housed domestic servants and skilled laborers. A second set of cabins may have existed near the “high pasture;” these less elaborate quarters would have housed field hands.
Cemeteries were generally designated by the master of the farm and were often a mile of more distant from the enslaved workers dwellings. Most funerals in the slave community were held at night. After the work day families carried the deceased to the cemetery while they sang.
Although most of the enslaved population of Belle Meade lived in the quarters, some actually lived in the mansion. Each member of the Harding family had a personal servant to attend to their needs, both at home and while traveling. Enslaved attendants usually slept at the foot of the bed of their master or mistress. Enslaved women with children near the age of those of their master served as wet nurses and nannies, tending and nursing their master’s children along side their own.
During the 1850’s William Giles Harding chaired a committee charged with enforcing the expatriation from Tennessee of all unauthorized free African-Americans within Davidson County; this action was fueled by worry over supposed plots for slave insurrection and paranoia in slave-holding society.
After the end of the institution of slavery in Tennessee, Harding refused to even entertain the notion of using Belle Meade’s resources to educate freedmen. Although William may have been relatively benevolent in his management of Belle Meade, he clearly did not believe that African-Americans should be given opportunities equal to those of white citizens.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, most of Belle Meade Plantation’s formerly enslaved families left their homes on the farm, but did not necessarily leave their jobs. While living in their own communities, many continued to work at Belle Meade. The Tolbert Community, located near Bellevue, was one of the first of these settlements established after the war and may have been populated by laborers from Belle Meade. Some families continued to live at Belle Meade’s old slave quarters; as the old cabins became dilapidated, new dwellings were constructed nearby. Descendents of the farm’s enslaved families lived in local cabins until the 1970’s, when the quarters were demolished by neighborhood construction.
African American Grooms and Jockeys at Belle Meade Plantation and in the United States
During the time of slavery, it was easier for plantation owners to have their enslaved workers take care of the horses than to pay someone. If these slaves showed talent, they would advance to higher positions, including jockey, groom, or trainer. These slaves were given a higher status, better treatment for these skills and had more personal freedom, opportunity to travel, and better clothes and food.
The most famous African American jockey of the 1800s was Isaac Murphy, who is thought to be one of the greatest jockeys in American racing history. He won three Kentucky Derbies and forty-four percent of all races he entered, a record that has not been rivaled in recent history. Unfortunately, he died at the age of thirty-four of pneumonia, cutting his successful career short. Today he rests next to the famous horse Man O’ War in the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
After Murphy’s success, the reliance of African American jockeys dwindled, and their status declined to that of stable help. Today more blacks are interested in racing, and they are finally regaining the status they held more than one hundred years ago.
Many jockeys after growing older, larger, and thus too big to ride became trainers. One trainer, Ed Brown of Louisville, Kentucky, trained the 1877 winner of the Kentucky Derby. He owned his own racehorses and was said to be the richest African-American man in Louisville at his death in 1906.
The people who were the jockeys, trainers, and groomsmen at Belle Meade were also responsible for the farm’s success. From the start in 1807, the Harding family had slaves. By the 1810’s they were becoming skilled at working with the horses. Most jockeys were slaves, young boys between the ages 8 and 12 with the perfect lightweight size for riding racehorses. These boys received preferential treatment and were able to travel the country. There is evidence that William Giles Harding was the trainer at Belle Meade, but he may have had help from some slaves on the property or white trainers he hired temporarily.
In 1839 General Harding brought a young enslaved boy to work at Belle Meade. His name was Robert “Bob” Green. As he grew up working with the horses, he became General Harding’s right hand and was an expert in everything related to the Thoroughbred. At the end of the war, Bob continued to work for the horse farm, and according to an 1879 ledger book in the Belle Meade archives, he was the highest paid worker on the farm as the head hostler or groom. Bob Green became famous for his horse knowledge, and it has been said that many a gentleman in the horse business owed a debt of gratitude to Bob for his knowledge at the yearling sales. The head groom at Belle Meade always wore a white apron, and Green was seen wearing his apron even in New York City. Bob was introduced to President Grover Cleveland during his visit in 1887, and Bob led President Cleveland on a tour of the stud, including profiles of Iroquois, Bramble, Enquirer, Luke Blackburn, Great Tom.
Bob Green was instrumental in taking care of the horses in the stud’s first great sale out of state. During the train trip to New York, the Johnstown Flood of 1889 occurred. The rails were covered in water and the train was forced to detour. During their confinement in the railcars, the horses became excited and the grooms, including Bob, had to hold the horses’ heads to keep them from becoming injured. Despite their best efforts, some of the horses were injured anyway, causing the first New York sale to falter.
At the end of his life, Green was forced to move from the plantation and his home at the old family cabin to his property in Nashville. Not only had he been in charge of all Thoroughbreds at Belle Meade, he owned and raced Thoroughbreds during his lifetime and was heartbroken to leave Belle Meade. In 1906, he was granted his request for burial at the farm, where he rests today in an unmarked grave.
Bob had at least 4 grooms working for him including Sam Nichols who in the 1880’s was offered a position at Fairview Farm but declined in order to stay working at the famous Belle Meade farm.
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