Delving back into the historical database of enslaved and free people of color in Nashville | Marrow in the wind

Nashville City Cemetery

Listen, I wanted to write something about Rep. Bruce Griffey and his bill to honor Kyle Rittenhouse, but it’s only funny for two reasons: 1. Of course Tennessee lawmakers would like to honor someone who went to another state to shoot someone. Griffey could just go ahead and honor Andrew Jackson, but alas, that would mean you admire a Democrat. 2. Rittenhouse’s mom drove him to his shooting. This great old hero who “deserves” a law and a proclamation had a chaperone? Imagine I’m smiling for 1000 years. If I feel the least bit sorry for Rittenhouse, it’s because he’s not stupid enough to reassure him with all this admiration. And I think you can already see him struggling with the slowly emerging realization that he’s become a symbol for people he doesn’t like. But that’s just my opinion.

So I decided it would be more fun to dig back into the city database of enslaved people, which I mentioned last week. I picked Frankey Harrison to take a closer look. Frankey is in the database because in her will she gave three people – Fanny, Elisha and Eliza Francis – to her sister Dilcey Childress, and Frankey was a free woman of color. Even now, apologists for slavery tend to point to these instances of black slave ownership as either evidence that slavery wasn’t so bad or that, even if it was, Black people did it too, so what are black people so mad about? People more familiar with the circumstances of black people who own slaves note that they often owned their own relatives.

I couldn’t find much about Frankey other than her will. But her will is fascinating. Frankey died in early April 1850 and is buried in the town cemetery. According to her will, she was Frankey Harrison, also known as Frankey Curtis, and she was a free woman of color. The first thing we learn about her after that is that she owned property. She wanted a lot she owned to sell and the proceeds to a guy named Wilkinson (I can’t read his first name) as “the balance on a bill that he has against me, about three hundred dollars more or less, and that he will satisfied and will be refunded for any money he may have paid as security for the late John Harrison.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding here, but it seems that she either borrowed money from Wilkinson to buy her husband John, or that John borrowed the money to buy her.

Frankey then wants another piece of property she has to her sister Dilsey, admonishing her to sell it in order to “buy and free her son John, now the property of the widow Childress of Florence Alabama.” Jesus, if that doesn’t tear your heart out, then I don’t know what will.

Then Frankey tells Dilsey to use the remaining money from the sale and divide it equally “among the living children of my sister Dilsey and a colored boy. Some of them share and share equally.” However, Constant cannot get his inheritance until he stays with Dilsey and takes care of her.

The same goes for the three slaves mentioned above. They will be released after Dilsey’s death, but Frankey wants Dilsey to be taken care of until then.

Man, I wish I could learn more about Frankey. But even this little piece speaks to her so deeply that she wants her family together and her sister will be fine when Frankey is gone. She also seems to have opened up her home to children in need. I couldn’t find any trace of Constant Day. James Wesley is not, as you may think, an uncommon name, but there was one who went on to become a firefighter who is about the right age to be the boy in Frankey’s will.

As for Dilsey, I think I found her in the 1860 census. She was 99 years old. The count lists an Elisha Childress as a 44-year-old male living with her. The Elisha Frankey wanted to give to Dilsey was 33 in 1850, so I think it’s most likely he who lives a free man and watches over Dilsey. The house is full of children and adolescents – another Dilcey (17), Mary (26) and Mary (10), William (9), Samuel (6), Esther (4), Ida (2) and the twins, Celeste and Elisa (5 months old). But if this is the same Dilsey, it means that the son she had followed and who was enslaved in Alabama was in his 50s or 60s while these women were still trying to free him. That’s some determination.

But here’s the other thing the slave database can do. So we know Frankey’s last name was Curtis before it was Harrison. We know that Dilsey’s last name was the same as her son’s owner, which may indicate that Dilsey was also owned by the Childresses. None of the Frankeys appear in Harrison’s inventories in the databases, but check this one out. When Rice Curtis died in 1803, he owned a wife named Franky and a wife named Dilcy, among many, many others. Franky stayed with Rice’s widow, so her last name may remain Curtis. Dilcy went to Patsey Curtis. According to the book Marriages of Davidson County, Tennessee, 1789-1847Patsy Curtis married Thomas Childress in 1805. This is them, right? Frankey and Dilsey were owned by Rice Curtis and split up in 1803, but somehow keep in touch and be able to get out and care for each other? (Listen, I know there’s a lot of Es in these names popping up and then dropping out. It is what it is.)

All of you, there will never be a state proclamation for Frankey Harrison. But there should be. Is there a better story of what Nashville could be than getting free and getting others free? The fact that we can see the freedom journey of these women, at least in bits, from 1803 to 1860 is truly astonishing.


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