Robert “Black Bob” Renfro: from Slave to Entrepreneur

by Larry Michael Ellis.

Robert “Black Bob” Renfro is mentioned in at least 25 records that date from 1792 to 1816. Members of John Donelson’s epic river voyage, his group left the Donelson party on April 12, 1780, at the Red River near present-day Clarksville. His master, Joseph Renfro, was a kinsman of the group’s leader Moses Renfro. Indian attacks, probably in 1780, drove them from what had become Renfro Station. Accounts differ as to the sequence of events which followed, but we do know that Joseph Renfro was killed near present-day Coopertown at what came to be known as the Battle Creek Massacre. Folk legend says that Black Bob saved his mistress and her children. Other historical accounts state that only a Mrs. Jones escaped. Nevertheless, Bob’s mistress, Olive Renfro, did arrive at Fort Nashborough where she petitioned for and was granted “letters of administration” for the estate of Joseph Renfro.

Bob does not appear in an official record until August 8, 1792, when he was sold by Olive Renfro (now Shaw) in what appears to be a three-party transaction. Bob became the property of Josiah Love, whose financial troubles involved him in several lawsuits, with Andrew Jackson serving as his lawyer. One foreclosure document lists Bob as Josiah Love’s only asset. Around the same time, Love entered into another complicated transaction in which two people claimed ownership of Bob: Robert Searcy, a prominent lawyer, and Elijah Robertson agreed to let the courts determine the true owner. In November 1795 the Court ruled Searcy was the rightful owner.

In the meantime, on January 16, 1794, the Davidson County Court agreed that “a certain Negro called Bobb [sic] in the town of Nashville be permitted to sell Liquor and Victuals.” This was the origin of what came to be known as Black Bob’s Tavern. A 1797 record lists an assault occurring at the “house of Black Bob.” This establishment was probably located on what is now Third Avenue, south of the Public Square.

Author Mike Ellis with historical marker commemorating the establishment of Renfroe’s Station in Montgomery County, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of the author)

An unusual event occurred in April 1800 when schoolmaster Anderson Lavender assaulted Bob. Lavender was indicted by the Davidson County Grand Jury. When he agreed to pay court costs, the case was dissolved. This was a significant moment in legal history: a white man was indicted for assaulting a slave, and the case was not simply dismissed. Andrew Jackson, Archibald Roane (future governor), and David Campbell were judges at the time the suit was heard before the Superior Court.

Robert Searcy maintained ownership of Bob until 1801, five years after Tennessee became a state. Searcy believed that Bob had more than paid back his investment and agreed to free him. However, freedom and emancipation are not synonymous terms. Fifty-three of Nashville’s most prominent and influential citizens, one of whom may have been a woman, signed a petition to the General Assembly requesting that Bob be emancipated, “giving him all the privileges that is usual to persons in a similar situation.” On November 10, 1801, the Fourth General Assembly of the State of Tennessee granted the request and further stated that he “shall in the future be known as Robert Renfro.”

The emancipated Robert Renfro opened a new “House of Entertainment” in 1802 that was located on Main Street (present-day Second Avenue). Robert then purchased a life estate in Lot #25 from Robert Searcy on Main Street where he built and operated his business until a fire destroyed the establishment in 1814. He then rented and operated the “stone tavern on the public square, near the courthouse.”

Robert Renfro continued to be involved in court cases, prevailing in at least three cases before white juries. In an 1805 breach-of-contract case he sued Charles Dickinson (who would be killed the following year in a duel with Andrew Jackson), and the appeals process established several Tennessee legal precedents. Renfro’s name is listed on militia and tax rolls, as well as in the records of several other legal transactions.

The last record mentioning Robert Renfro dates from 1816. Although no record has been found of his death, his name does not appear in the 1820 U.S. Census of Nashville.

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