Family traces history of Tennessee’s wealthiest black slave owner
Katie Allison Granju
By COLBY SLEDGE Staff Writer
Like many wealthy landowners of the pre-Civil War South, Sherrod Bryant owned slaves. They probably worked much of Bryant’s 700 acres in Middle Tennessee, an area larger than that of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation.
The slaves under Bryant helped raise hogs for their owner, who had a large family and was always looking to buy more property. Unlike many slave owners, however, Sherrod Bryant was black.
Today, the notion of a black man owning black slaves seems contradictory ? Bryant himself was a free black ? and perhaps even hypocritical. According to Bryant’s descendants, however, their ancestor, who was never a slave, was simply following the normal pattern of life for a rich landowner in the Upper South.
"I think at some point some of the members (of the family) might not have looked upon it very favorably, but the more we discuss it, the more we suddenly realize that to gain wealth during that time, if you had a lot of property, you had to have slaves to help you cultivate it," said Carl Bryant, a fourth-generation descendant of Sherrod.
Ancestor’s life studied
For the past six years, Carl, a retired Air Force veteran, has studied the life of Sherrod Bryant, who probably was among the wealthiest blacks in Tennessee in the 1800s. Upon his arrival to the state in 1806 from North Carolina, the then 25-year-old Sherrod Bryant set to purchasing land, acquiring seven different parcels in the still-fledgling Midstate between 1811 and 1852.
That land included 300 acres known as Bryant Grove on the Rutherford County side of Long Hunter State Park, as well as the area of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in downtown Nashville.
Along the way, he picked up slaves to help him work the land, Carl Bryant said. He used a genealogy Web site along with an inventory list from county archives that listed 22 slaves under Sherrod’s possession, including some who appeared to be children of older slaves.
"That was just a fact, that if you had a lot of property and you were a big farmer plus you had to feed your family, you had slaves because where would you find help?" Carl Bryant said.
There have been several cases of free blacks owning slaves in the pre-Civil War South, according to Dr. George Smith, a Murfreesboro physician and Civil War re-enactor who said he began studying the issue of blacks owning slaves after hearing of Sherrod Bryant.
Smith said free blacks would often purchase slaves to free them, but Carl Bryant said he had no evidence that Sherrod freed his slaves after his death in 1854.
"Most of our impressions of slavery has been influenced by TV and movies," Smith said. "But slavery was a peculiar institution, and Sherrod Bryant was part of that."
Dr. David Carlton, a professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the history of the South, said that while it was possible for a free black to own a large amount of slaves, it certainly wasn’t common.
"Generally speaking, 20 slaves is treated by historians as the lower limit of farming a plantation," Carlton said.
He was ‘one of a kind’
Carl Bryant went through county archives in Nashville, Murfreesboro and Lebanon as well as federal census records and genealogy records from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to discover more about Sherrod.
He hasn’t been able to find much about Sherrod’s parents, however, information crucial to understanding the source of Sherrod’s wealth.
The Bryant family contains mixed-race lineage, Carl said, and he wonders whether Sherrod’s father was white.
"He knew all the right people," Carl said of Sherrod, who had a letter issued by influential members of Davidson County that asked that Sherrod be treated "in every respect as if he were a white man" when purchasing land.
"It’s a very, very important untold part of Tennessee history," said Dan Whittle, president of Friends of Long Hunter State Park.
Whittle said he became interested in Sherrod Bryant’s story after driving through the park one day and noticing a sign signifying Bryant’s status as one of the wealthiest free blacks in Tennessee.
"He was a successful free black entrepreneur with papers and was really unique in Tennessee history ? kind of a one-of-a-kind person up until that era," he said.
Sherrod Bryant is buried in Bryanttown Cemetery on Elm Hill Pike, where the inscription on his marker reads, "Here rests from his labors Sherod (sic) Bryant, whose honesty, piety and industry were examples."
Those virtues, and not simply his slave holdings, are what Carl Bryant wants his notable ancestor to be remembered for.
"Many pioneers that came have died and have been forgotten," he said. "I don’t want him to be forgotten."
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