For many white people, the idea of slavery seems distant. But for African Americans, like Tennessee State University history professor Learotha Williams Jr., it’s much closer.
“I’ve always been cognizant of the fact that slavery is only about two grandmas away from me,” Williams says.
Williams is involved in numerous Nashville efforts honoring African Americans, and led the group that erected a historical marker recognizing the city’s former slave market downtown.
And several years ago he was also part of a national program called the “Slave Grandchildren Remember Project.”
As part of that, he interviewed Raymond Northern, who grew up on a sharecropper farm in Williamson County. Northern recalled that the land where he lived was part of the very same plantation on Berry’s Chapel Road, where his grandfather had been enslaved.
Williams says it was “an incredible conversation,” and he was struck when Northern revealed that his grandfather was the son of his master, Basil Berry.
Northern also shared the story of the first time he figured that out. He was visiting an aunt who had two portraits on her wall. Northern told her he knew one of them was his grandfather but said “who’s that white man up there?” She explained that was his great grandfather.
Williams says the conversation got him curious so he dug into the history of the plantation and noticed four adults and “a lot of babies.”
Northern says Basil Berry never married but his grandpa’s momma lived with him and “furnished” him with many children.
“So I reached the conclusion from looking at everything that they were breeding slaves down there,” Williams remembers. “And that’s something I would not have thought of.”
He says the conversation with Northern led him to look a bit closer at the census, at data, numbers and demographics to see what they revealed.
It also made him realize that a lot of the information that can help “inform our understanding of enslavement, still resides in the heads of our elders.”