Franklin African American Heritage Tour | Franklin, Tennessee - Rooted in Americana

Franklin African American Heritage Tour

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Franklin African American Heritage Tour

This self-guided driving tour called "Courage, Faith and Commitment" highlights Franklin's African American heritage. Before the Civil War, African Americans made up more than half of Franklin’s population, including slaves and a small free black community that included a barber and a baker. During the war and after emancipation, several men joined United States Colored Troop units and fought for their freedom. After the war, Franklin experienced racial tensions as residents struggled with the tumultuous social changes sweeping across the country. The Franklin Riot of 1867 started as a political event but ended in gunfire, injury or death to 39 people.

African Americans persevered through those tough years to create close-knit and thriving neighborhoods. Living in a small town rather than on a farm or plantation allowed African Americans to learn skilled trades, including carpentry, stonemasonry, teaching, and chair making. Many African Americans became entrepreneurs, operating businesses, farms, stores, and funeral homes. 

The effects of the civil rights movement, integration, and urban renewal changed Franklin’s historic African American neighborhoods, as new opportunities lured them to other places. Fortunately, neighborhood revitalization and recognition are bringing new life to these historic communities that made such necessary and important contributions to Franklin’s growth and prosperity. 

The 20 sites on this tour provide an opportunity to experience the diversity of Franklin’s history. Some sites are publicly accessible during posted visited hours or are available by appointment. Several remain in private ownership and can only be viewed from the public thoroughfares. Please respect the rights of property owners and only enter the properties that are open and accessible to the public. 

This driving tour takes about 2 hours and begins at the Lillie Mills silos on First Avenue in historic downtown Franklin.

1. LILLIE MILLS AND L&N RAILROAD COMPLEXES
First Avenue South between East Main and South Margin Streets

Along First Avenue, the silos of the former Lillie Mills flour plant and the railroad depot still mark the landscape. These were key downtown industries that employed many African Americans, and contributed to the development of the downtown African American community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

2. DOWNTOWN & THE "BUCKET OF BLOOD"
Area bordered by the Harpeth River, the railroad tracks, Main and Church Street

This downtown area currently houses restored homes, shops and offices. However, between 1870 and 1960, this same area housed a vital working class African-American neighborhood.

After the Civil War, former slave Rev. William Perkins became the first freedman to purchase a home in the neighborhood. African American residents representing a variety of professions and skills worked as carpenters, railroad workers, gardeners, shoemakers, cooks, nurses and washwomen called this their home.

On First Avenue, the Lillie Mills flour plant operated for several decades. The mill provided jobs for many African-Americans, and established the area along East Margin Street as an industrial center. In the early 1900s, two rows of company houses for African American mill workers were built around the plant, nicknamed “Bucket of Blood.” Although many stories abound about the neighborhood’s name, local lore suggests that a man was killed in the rough area, and bled a “bucket of blood,”

The downtown neighborhood experienced significant changes as the mill closed, government offices expanded beyond the square, and neighborhood revitalization brought more retail to the area and a few of the historic African American structures remain part of the landscape today.

3. GREEN HOUSE
Corner of Second Avenue & Church Street

The “Green House” is the oldest remaining African American house in downtown Franklin. William “Munch” and Docia House purchased the corner lot on 2nd Avenue and Church Street in 1906 and their home remained in the family for over ninety years. In 2001, preservationists Thelma Battle and Pearl Bransford persuaded City Hall not to tear down the house for a parking lot.

4. WILEY MEMORIAL CHAPEL METHODIST EPISCOPAL
112 Second Avenue South (presently Pull-Tight Theatre)

The Methodist Episcopal Church was built ca. 1869, and served as a vital community institution through the mid-twentieth century. A dwindling congregation caused the church to close in the 1945. The former church currently houses the Pull-Tight Theatre.

5. COURTHOUSE SQUARE
The Public Square in the heart of downtown

After the Civil War, on July 6, 1867, the courthouse square was the site of the infamous Franklin Riot when Franklin’s Colored League marched through Franklin’s square to protest speeches by two congressional candidates. A.N.C. Williams attempted to avoid violence by communicating the League’s desire to march peaceably to the assembled white attendees. Events escalated and shots were fired on both sides, but Williams’ proved instrumental in calming tensions between blacks and whites and working for a peaceful solution to the conflict on the square.

6. A.N.C. WILLIAMS' STORE
428 Main Street

Perhaps Franklin’s most prominent early African American merchant and entrepreneur, A.N.C. Williams opened one of the first African American businesses in downtown Franklin in 1863, operating a shoe repair business on the square. After purchasing a lot between 4th and 5th Avenue, Williams constructed a building and opened a general merchandise store. Williams operated his store for sixty-four years, openly catering to both black and white patrons despite Jim Crow laws and segregation. Due to failing health, he retired in 1928 as the oldest continually operating merchant on Main Street, having owned and managed his successful store for over sixty years.

7. OLD CITY CEMETERY
Fourth Avenue North

Before the establishment of Toussaint L'Ouverture Cemetery, many of Franklin's African American citizens were buried in the Old City Cemetery's eastern quadrant.

8. TOUISSANT L'OUVERTURE CEMETERY
Corner of Hillsboro Road and Del Rio Pike

In 1884, a group of African American residents purchased four acres and created their neighborhood cemetery. The Toussaint L’Ouverture Cemetery is a prominent landmark in the Hardbargain neighborhood,named for the slave leader who led the 1812 revolution ending French colonial rule in Haiti. The cemetery houses veterans from both World Wars, the Korean Warand the Vietnam War, as well as members of the many African American Masonic and social organizations. Prominent citizens buried here include A.N.C. Williams and former Carnton slave Mariah Reddick, one of the central characters in the novel Widow of the South. The cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

9. CHARLES JOHNSON ELEMENTARY HISTORIC MARKER
Corner of 11th Avenue North & Mt. Hope Street

This school was named for Dr. Charles C. Johnson, a prominent local African American physician who operated the first hospital for African Americans in Franklin. Built in 1956 to teach the growing numbers of Franklin’s African American children, it served grades K-8. Under pressure by federal lawmakers and the black community, Franklin’s schools began limited desegregation in 1962, and Johnson Elementary was fully integrated in 1971.

10. HARD BARGAIN
Bordered by 11th Avenue North, Mt. Hope Street, 9th Avenue North & Green Street

This area is first mentioned in the 1866 county road book. Hard Bargain developed from a series of lots originally purchased by Judge W.S. McLemore in 1873. Local lore suggests the neighborhood received its name from the difficult bargain he struck for the land. Although a few of the lots were purchased by white families, the area quickly became an African American neighborhood comprised of skilled trades people and domestic servants.

In 1880, former slave Harvey McLemore built one of the neighborhood’s earliest homes, which remained in his family for five generations. His home, located on 11th Avenue North, now houses the McLemore House African American Museum. 

Franklin Primitive Baptist church, established in 1867, was the first church in the area, followed by several others including the St. John’s Episcopal Church “Negro Mission” and the Green Street Church of God, which stands with an active congregation.

11. McLEMORE HOUSE
Corner of Glass Street & 11th Avenue

Built in 1880 by former slave Harvey McLemore, this was one of Hardbargain’s earliest homes and reflected a stable, middle class African American neighborhood. The house stayed in the McLemore family for 117 years, and was sold through a joint purchase by the Heritage Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and the African American Historical Society. The building currently houses the McLemore House Museum and is open for tours by appointment.

12. NATCHEZ STREET (HISTORIC MARKER)
In the early 1900s, the Natchez Street community was demonstrative of the courage, faith, and commitment of African Americans in Franklin. Prominent African American entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and educators lived and worked in the self contained community. Working-class citizens literally built portions of Franklin by digging wells, laying brick, stonemasonry and working in neighborhood businesses. Although the buildings no longer stand, several twentieth century Natchez Street industries included the American Syrup and Preserves Company; Southall Brothers Lumber Mill; and the J.W. Beasley Lumber Mill. Beasley also built company houses along the bordering streets of Carter and Strahl, which housed both black and white mill workers.

Franklin’s African American school was located on Natchez Street, demonstrating the neighborhood’s deep commitment to education. First known as the Claiborne Institute, later the Franklin Training School and finally Natchez High School, residents took great pride in the students, sports teams, bands and staff. Schools in Franklin implemented an integration policy in 1964, and Natchez High School graduated its last class in 1967.

Nicknamed “Baptist Neck” because it extends between several historic active churches, this neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

13. PROVIDENCE UNITED PRIMITIVE BAPTIST CHURCH
corner of Natchez and Granbury Streets

This church stands at the corner of Natchez and Granbury Streets. In 1883, Atha Thomas sold the land for this church to Wallis Bradley, Randal Brown, Harrison Scruggs, Jack Wilburn and Aaron Blakely. It was first called the “Two-Seat” church. In 1904 it became the Providence UPB Church. 

14. BEASLEY TOWN (HISTORIC MARKER)
Granbury Street (library parking lot)

Nicknamed “Beasley Town,” these small company homes provided residences for both black and white lumber mill workers and their families, which was very unusual during segregation. Encompassing three acres, the area contained 36 houses built by mill owner W.J. Beasley, each of which had a small garden plot. Mr. Beasley collected the rent for these homes each week, and expected families to have money ready at the appointed time when he made his rounds.

15. NATCHEZ HIGH SCHOOL
335 Natchez Street (presently Claiborne Hughes Health Center)

In 1888, the Ninth Neighborhood School Committee purchased the lot on Natchez Street. The first school on this site was called the Claiborne Institute in honor of first principal Willis Claiborne. The school was rebuilt in 1907 as the Franklin Colored School, and expanded in 1925 as the Franklin Training School. The present building was built in 1949. In 1962, teachers at Franklin Training School worked with the Williamson County Board of Education to change the school’s name to Natchez High School to reflect the desire for equality in education and recognition that the school had evolved beyond industrial training programs. After integration, the school graduated its last class in 1967.

16. SHORTER CHAPEL A.M.E. CHURCH
152 Fowlkes Street (at the corner of Natchez Street)

This church congregation purchased the Franklin Methodist Episcopal Church South building on Second Avenue & Church Streets in 1873. In 1925, the congregation erected its present Victorian-inspired building on the corner of Natchez and West Fowlkes Streets.

17. NATCHEZ COMMUNITY CENTER
233 Natchez Street

The Natchez Community Center facility has long been a pillar of the neighborhood. Formerly a neighborhood grocery, a pentecostal church, funeral home and other businesses of necessity, the Center continues to empower the community by servicing diverse needs.

18. FIRST MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH
113 Natchez Street

The First Missionary Baptist Church, organized in 1871, holds distinction as the neighborhood’s oldest congregation. In 1901, the First Missionary Baptist hosted the Colored Missionary Baptist Association, when a group of three to four thousand African Americans gathered for this religious meeting. This type of gathering for African Americans was unusual in a town whose population was only 3,000 total.

19. BELL TOWN (HISTORIC MARKER)
Cummins and Evans Streets

Bell Town housed several black businesses, churches,and a Lodge of black Freemasons. A historic marker in the Cummins Street Church of Christ parking lot stands as a testament to the neighborhood and founding church member A.N.C. Williams.

20. CARNTON PLANTATION SLAVE HOUSE
1345 Eastern Flank Circle

Carnton Plantation reflects the intense toil and skilled craftsmanship of the slaves that built and sustained it before emancipation. By 1860, Carnton owner John McGavock owned 44 slaves that worked the fields and in the home. Carnton has one remaining slave cabin, an unusual two-story brick structure, believed to be used for both living quarters and a location for weaving, spinning and sewing. The building was restored in 1982.

Carnton Plantation is open daily for paid, guided tours. The tour of the house lasts about an hour not including the additional time needed to explore the grounds & outbuildings including the slaves cabin. 

The tour ends at Carnton Plantation.