Hidden History

Chasing Nashville’s Ghosts

Growing up, I wanted to get as far away as possible from Tennessee’s shameful Confederate past. It took a stint up north—and a longing for southern cooking—before I made peace with my hometown.

Chasing Nashville’s Ghosts

I decided to move home to Nashville while shopping for molasses at a Stop and Shop in Amherst, Massachusetts. Well, what I really needed that day was sorghum. I knew that was hopeless, so I settled for the poorer substitute. I was also deciding whether to beg my friend Joan for her spare pair of snowshoes. I’d already been trapped in my home twice that season, and though my internal calendar said the redbuds should be blooming, snow was falling outside.

I started my molasses hunt in the syrup aisle, where I would have found it in Tennessee. There were shelves of maple syrup, some of it packaged in jugs that reminded me of moonshine, some funneled into adorably kitschy farmhouse-shaped tins. I saw a few bottles of corn syrup hidden on the bottom shelf. There was an infinite variety of local honeys. But no molasses. Next I tried the condiment section. Still nothing. A clerk directed me to the Southern food section. There the molasses was, alongside a single box of grits and some buttermilk biscuit mix, smashed between the Mexican food and the Asian food in the International Food Aisle. “Right,” I thought. “Time to go home.”

I surprised myself by how certain I was of that decision. I had known for several months that I would be leaving Massachusetts, but I had figured on heading to New York or Chicago or D.C. or Atlanta. Nashville never made the list. I had spent too many years trying to escape Tennessee.

I was a misfit. Just before the end of second grade, my family moved from a suburb north of Nashville to a rural community thirty miles south of the city. The first day in my new school, a girl was nominated to tell me I should go back to where I came from. No one wanted me there. I was an outsider, the kid whose family was not part of the community. For the next six years, my classmates took turns reminding me we’d all be happier if I found somewhere else to go to school. Things improved when I started at the large, consolidated high school in town, but I still dreamed of a bigger world. My college years in Indiana were better yet, and I loved graduate school in North Carolina.

My decision to run away was also a product of my raising. Daddy — a Nashville native — purged my accent of anything Tennessee. I was to speak slowly and enunciate clearly. I pronounced pen and pin; said get not git. My rebellion was clinging to the word y’all (a lovely, gender-neutral inclusive conjunction the rest of y’all should adopt). His plan worked. “Now, honey, where are you visiting from?” cashiers would ask. Or when I told people my last name was Martin, they’d ask me to spell it. “Oh, Mar’in!” they’d reply.

My senior year of college, the English department handed out various awards to the graduates. These were supposed to be funny, a gentle roasting before we went out into the world. I won “Least Likely to Be Mistaken for a Southern Belle.” The only one in the program raised south of the Mason/Dixon Line, I tried to laugh along.

But my flight was also about escaping the ghosts that wander the streets of my hometown. Some of my ghosts are pranksters. There’s a young Confederate officer who grew up in a house just a few blocks over from where I sit writing. He had given his sweetheart a sundial before he went to war. He must have said something romantic about love and the constancy of the sun’s return. When he died, she hooked up with someone else, but kept the sundial. He’s spent his afterlife stealing the gnomon from the sundial.

Another was my first crush. Samuel Davis was a Confederate scout raised on a plantation just outside Nashville. I discovered him when my class took a tour of his home. The docent showed us an image of a handsome, serious young man and told us he was the Boy Hero of the Confederacy. He was captured (possibly while taking an afternoon nap in the middle of enemy territory) carrying documents stolen from a Union general’s desk. When asked to name his accomplices in exchange for his life, he said, “I would die a thousand deaths rather than betray a friend,” or perhaps “I will die a thousand deaths rather than betray my cause,” or perhaps something else equally dashing. He was hung while the band played “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.”

Theodrick (or “Tod”) and Annie Carter are supposed to haunt the Carnton Plantation, where the Battle of Franklin raged. Tod enlisted in the Confederate Army three years before the battle, which was the first time he had been home. While his family hid in the root cellar, he and the other soldiers fought. Technically, the Confederates won, but so many of them had been injured that the Army of Tennessee was basically destroyed. Tod was among the thousands of wounded and dying men. The Carter family carried Tod to Annie’s bedroom where he died.

The dead have fueled the local economy. Each weekend in October, the ghosts’ casual enthusiasts gather. They pay a few dollars a pop to take hour-long guided tours of our most haunted spots. More serious devotees go to the city cemetery or the various battlefields around the area where guides, sometimes garbed in Antebellum finery, lead candlelit tours of the places where the young white men died by the thousands.

But my ghosts aren’t just here during the fall. If I look carefully, I can spot them all year long. They walk around me, these specters of bloody conflict; these shades in blue and grey, hoop skirts and homespun; these shadows of the lingering divisions in our nation. They are haunting reminders of the three-quarters of a million young men sent to slaughter, of the black bodies white Americans bought and sold.

It worries me that I only see a portion of the wandering souls. I can’t see the people who built the historic homes that line the wealthiest neighborhoods. I search for them, but I can’t find the people who were forced to wash and clean for the young men I was raised to admire; the men and women and children who were bought and sold, raped and beaten and mutilated, punished and manipulated at the whim of the white Nashvillians who preceded me; the people who somehow maintained their dignity and humanity despite slavery and the racism of my ancestors.

Much of antebellum Nashville was destroyed by the development and urban planning of the twentieth century, but remnants survive. Almost any surviving structure built before the Civil War was constructed using slave labor. It took fifteen enslaved men two years to carve the limestone cellar at the foundation of the state capitol building. At Carnton, Annie and Tod Carter aren’t the only ghosts visitors see. Some report seeing the enslaved woman who once cooked for the family floating through the kitchen where she worked. Recent expansions at the Nashville Zoo uncovered a small slave cemetery. The nine remains showed evidence of having led a difficult life. They were all under the age of fifty, but six of them had arthritis. One woman had a fractured vertebrae in her lower back. Another man had a damaged hip due to putting too much stress on the joint at a young age.

At some point, my haunting friends became troubling to me. I didn’t want us to belong together any longer. Growing up, I learned that hatred and violence and inequality were Southern issues. I gained what I have come to see as pretty standard white Southern guilt: I hated feeling responsible for sins committed over a hundred years earlier and I felt overwhelmed by the ongoing problems around me. It was immobilizing. Or as I once heard civil rights scholar Timothy B. Tyson say, “Guilt is useless.”

I tried to escape by moving away, but then I had to deal with other people’s hauntings. I didn’t know where to expect the unfamiliar spirits to pop up. They could surprise me. Scare me. Trick me. Even Amherst had its ghosts. A colleague asked me what was the weirdest part of living in the Northeast, and I commented on how white the town was. “Oh, you just haven’t gotten to know us yet,” he answered. “The black people are in Springfield, and the Puerto Ricans live in Holyoke.”

When I moved home to Nashville, I discovered I like being able to say, “These dead souls belong to me.” I decided it was time to find the ones who were still invisible to me. I started trying to look with new eyes, owning my heritage, both good and bad.

Some days, I think I catch a wisp of a shadow from the people I have struggled to see. I noticed them first in the countryside, resting along the miles of stacked stone fences edging many historic farms. Then a friend reminded me that similar fences lie along Granny White Pike, the busy route between Nashville and the Brentwood Suburbs. I could swear I saw them marching alongside the new generation of freedom fighters who shut down the city’s highways and shopping malls to protest police violence.

I may well need to move away again one day soon. But for the moment, I like knowing my place and being back with my people. I’ve even learned I can almost manage a Tennessee twang when I’m tired, angry or have a little whiskey in my blood. Maybe one day, I won’t be asked where I’m from but recognized as what I am: a confused Southern girl who loves her home and dreams that one day it will overcome its past.