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.
Belle Meade’s First Enslaved African Americans
John Harding brought two slaves with him when he settled at Dunham’s Station. Ben worked in the farm’s blacksmiths shop. In addition, 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 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 specific 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.
Ben, Ned, and Freedom
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 Ben left, John Harding purchased Ned, who escaped after only a few months. Skilled laborers who escaped slavery faced less difficulty in finding jobs than field workers, after moving to Free states and territories.
Housing and Burials for African Americans at Belle Meade
It is probable that Belle Meade Plantation had two sets of quarters for enslaved workers and possibly 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 at least a mile away from the enslaved workers’ dwellings. Most funerals in the enslaved 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 who were 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.
Post Civil War and African Americans at Belle Meade
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 entertain the notion of using Belle Meade’s resources to educate freedmen. Although William Harding 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. Descendants 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. These positions included 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.
Isaac Murphy and Ed Brown
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, Murphy 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 on African American jockeys dwindled, and their status declined to that of stable help.
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 racehorses and was said to be the richest African-American man in Louisville at his death in 1906.
Jockeys and Trainers at Belle Meade
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 those individuals were skilled at working with the horses. Most jockeys were slaves, young boys between the ages 8 and 12, with a 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 slaves on the property or white trainers he hired temporarily.
Bob Green: Head Hostler
In 1839 William Giles Harding brought a young enslaved boy to work at Belle Meade. His name was Robert “Bob” Green. Bob Green grew up working with the horses and became 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 was famous for his horse knowledge, and it was 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, which included profiles of Iroquois, Bramble, Enquirer, Luke Blackburn, and Great Tom.
Bob Green was also instrumental in taking care of the horses in the stud’s first great sale out of state in New York. During the train trip, 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.
Bob had at least four grooms working for him, including Sam Nichols, who in the 1880’s was offered a position at Fairview Farm but declined in order to continue working at Belle Meade.
At the end of his life, Bob Green moved from the plantation and his home at the old family cabin to his property in Nashville. He was in charge of all Thoroughbreds at Belle Meade, he owned and raced Thoroughbreds during his lifetime, and he was heartbroken to leave his horses at Belle Meade. In 1906, Bob was granted his request for burial at the farm with the horses, where he rests today in an unmarked grave.
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