The Fort Negley Descendants Project is an oral history digital archive aimed at preserving the voices and stories of the descendants of the African-American laborers and soldiers who built and defended Fort Negley. The Fort was built in 1862, using a combination of forced labor of enslaved Africans which the Union army in Nashville had rounded up from nearby plantations, and free blacks of Nashville and the surrounding areas, who offered their services in exchange for payment (much of which never materialized). There were also contraband workers- people from all over the South who fled their enslavement and sought out the protection of the Union forces on St. Cloud Hill through volunteering their labor. Once built, the fortification was defended by various regiments of the United States Colored Troops against the Confederate forces. Both builders and defenders died in record numbers at Fort Negley in the defense of our union. Recent ground-penetrating radar reports have indicated a high likelihood that their remains still lie on the grounds of Fort Negley Park.
After the war, those who survived settled the nearby historically black neighborhoods of Chestnut Hill, Wedgewood Houston, historic Edgefield, and Edgehill. At the turn of the century, several prominent families from these neighborhoods founded North Nashville and all of the prestigious black institutions residing there- the historically black colleges, businesses, and churches. In the 1950s, these same institutions trained and supported some of the sharpest minds of the Civil Rights movement. There is a long and unbroken connection between the builders and defenders of Fort Negley, and Nashville’s current African-American population. Many members of this population see the fort as sacred, and they memorialize it with ceremonies, oral traditions, and historic reenactments. As gentrification pushes more black families from these neighborhoods out of the city limits, and this development robs the community of a place that has secured a spot in black oral tradition, stories will become less accessible. People will forget.
In response, a handful of colleagues at Vanderbilt’s Digital Humanities Center and the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities have created a working group (Called Digital Initiatives in Public Engagement) to explore the ways in which we could offer digital solutions to a local public history concern- in this case, the loss of descendant voices. With the generous help of Fort Negley’s biggest fans, we have been able to track down several descendants of the fort, both builders and defenders, and film their stories for the creation of the Fort Negley Oral History Archive to be housed in Vanderbilt University’s repository in perpetuity.
The support from people both at Vanderbilt and from the community have been overwhelming. People have generously given their time, their advice, their office space, their stories, and their knowledge of filming and editing, data curation, metadata, transcription, and web developing. They have also given up many, many Saturdays. So far, we have been able to film Gary Burke, descendant of a soldier in the 13thRegiment of the US Colored Troops, and one of the most vociferous and devoted defenders of the fort’s black history, as well as Dr. Eleanor Fleming, descendant of two formerly enslaved builders of the fortifications. We are in the process of reaching out to several others, with the goal of adding at least three more stories this year. We have also filmed several events, such as a Civil War Reenactment at the fort, and a commemoration ceremony for the deceased builders of the fort, as supplemental footage.