Monroe W. Gooden: Ahead of His Time

by John W. Marshall and Kathy B. Lauder. 

Introduction: Although Monroe W. Gooden was not a Nashvillian, he was one of the 14 African American men elected to the Tennessee General Assembly during the 19th century. In time we hope to include all their biographies in the Nashville Historical Newsletter. For more information about these remarkable individuals and their complex historical era, see the Tennessee State Library and Archives exhibit:

Monroe Gooden’s death certificate records his birthdate as October 26, 1852, and his death as January 19, 1915. The Biographical Directory of the Tennessee General Assembly includes the same date of death but lists Gooden’s birth date as May 10, 1848, which, since it corresponds with the age Gooden gave in census records, is probably more likely to be correct.

Monroe W. Gooden (from a composite photo of the 45th Tennessee General Assembly, 1887)

The death certificate also states that the future legislator was born in Fayette County, Tennessee, to Monroe Gooden Sr. and an unknown mother. The omission of the mother’s name is regrettable since it might have provided a valuable clue to the family’s history – slaves usually had the same masters (and surnames) as their mothers, at least during their youth. We do know that the neighborhood the Goodens lived in was in the north-central part of Fayette County, along the line between Districts 4 and 5, and only two or three miles from the Haywood County line. In fact, Charles G. Feild’s plantation (Feild was the slave owner of Representative John W. Boyd’s mother) was just over the county line in Haywood County, only a few miles away. Although we still do not know exactly which plantation was Monroe Gooden’s birthplace, we can identify three possible choices bordering each other in that neighborhood: the Baskerville and Tucker plantations in District 4 and the Harwell plantation in District 5. Since slaves generally took spouses from their own and adjoining plantations, a trend that continued throughout Reconstruction, it is likely that Gooden was born on one of these three plantations.

The question of where Gooden and his sister Lucinda lived during the period of slavery has not been completely answered. We are quite certain that they were Monroe Senior’s only children, and it is apparent that their mother died when they were very young. Slave schedule/census records rule out either the Tucker or Baskerville plantations. However, one clue to their childhood home may be found in Civil War enrollment records: Monroe W. evidently enrolled in the Federal army as “Monroe Harvey.” Matching this name to a late 1860s Fayette County record of a “Monroe Harwell” (who does not appear in the census), one wonders whether the young soldier’s name should have been written as “Harwell” also, and whether the children did, in fact, grow up on the Harwell plantation in District 5. Slave genealogy is a puzzle with many pieces (and documents) missing.

The Harwell plantation was owned by Dr. Frederick Harwell, a native of Brunswick County, Virginia. Several members of his family had moved to Giles County in Middle Tennessee about 1810. Twenty years later Dr. Harwell and his wife moved west to District 5 in Fayette County, where they established a sizable plantation, with more than 1,000 acres and close to 80 slaves. Several intriguing anecdotes about the family still survive. According to one story, late in the Civil War Dr. Harwell, who was quite elderly by then, took a little slave girl along to help him bury his money in order to protect it from oncoming Yankee soldiers. Several descendants of that little girl tell how, later in life, she wracked her brain trying to remember where the money was buried. Over the years many people tried to find the hidden treasure, but with no success. It was not until the 1940s that Jacob Harwell Jr., whose father was raised by a slave from the plantation, was plowing in one of the fields and dug up part of the money. Descendants of John Yarbrough, the mulatto driver [a high-ranking slave used as an overseer] on the plantation, tell of the Union soldiers who hung Yarbrough upside down from a tree to force him to reveal where the Harwells’ valuables were hidden. 

Because the Harwells had no children, when both of them died during the final year of the Civil War, they willed their property to two Giles County nephews, who continued to operate the Harwell plantation as absentee owners for another 40 years. During that period several mortgages were filed by Monroe W. Gooden for crops “grown on the Harwell place,” which was on the Somerville-to-Covington road, where the Bernard School was later located. Combining that information with the available census records, one can draw the conclusion that Monroe was renting and living in the old Harwell manor house during much of the late 1800s. Oral history suggests that Monroe was a “big operator” with many sharecroppers working under him. Whether or not he was originally a Harwell slave, it is evident that he was in time the de facto “master” of the Harwell plantation.

Photo courtesy of Fayette County Historical Society

We do know that Monroe W. Gooden’s wife Ann came from the Baskerville plantation owned by the Reverend John Tabb Baskerville, a well-known Methodist minister of the area, and a native of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, which had been home to a number of the large land-owners of southwest Tennessee. A family story relates that the white Baskervilles taught at least one of their young slaves to read, and later gave her enough money to purchase 100 acres of property.                                                                  

Monroe W. Gooden and Ann Baskerville were married in Somerville on December 29, 1866, not long after Monroe Sr. married Hannah Hare, another former slave from the Baskerville plantation. It is interesting to note that Monroe Sr.’s marriage record lists his surname as “Tucker,” suggesting (since freed slaves often chose the surname of their original owner, rather than the most recent one) that he had at some point been a slave of Joseph C. C. Tucker on a plantation adjoining that of the Baskervilles.

In the 1870 census, both Monroe W. and Monroe Sr. were living in District 4. The elder Gooden was at that time 48 years old, so he would have been born about 1822, during the presidency of James Monroe. Their surname in this particular census is spelled “Goodwin,” which may provide an additional clue to their history – in the 1820s the Goodwyn family were among the largest slave-holders in Dinwiddie County, Virginia . . . which was also the original home of Joseph C. C. Tucker!  It is quite possible that Monroe Sr. was born in Virginia as a Goodwyn slave, but was later brought to Fayette County by the Tuckers.

On March 2, 1872, Monroe Gooden Sr. became one of the first African Americans in Fayette County to own land, when he purchased two tracts amounting to about 250 acres from A. D. Stainback (Fayette Deed Book 2, page 57) in a transaction known as a title bond. This was an instrument of sale whereby the title passed to the new owner, but a deed was not given until payment was made in full. Six years later, after the death of Monroe Sr., the administrator of A. D. Stainback’s estate gave a deed for the property to “the heirs of Monroe Gooden,” listed as his widow Hannah Gooden and his two children, Monroe Gooden Jr. and Lucinda Gooden McNeal (Fayette Deed Book 7, page 345, 25 February 1878). Lucinda McNeal, who married Austin McNeal, owned a house and lot in the town of Mason during the early 1900s. She was known around town as “Aunt Cindy McNeal” and lived to be an old woman. Unfortunately, her death certificate provides no information as to her parentage.

Tennessee Capitol (photo courtesy of the Tennessee House of Representatives)

A deed from January 25, 1881 (Fayette Deed Book 9, page 618), provides for one-half acre to be used as the site for a school for colored children. The school directors for Civil District 5 during that period were identified as W. A. Rives, M. W. Goodwin, and James H. Cocke. Rives and Cocke were both white men. There is little doubt that by this time Monroe W. Gooden had risen to a very prominent position in the community. The only African American Democrat in the Tennessee legislature in the 19th century, he was elected to represent Fayette County in the 45th Tennessee General Assembly, 1887-1888. A legislative biography identifies him as a “farmer and ginner near Somerville, Fayette County,” and lists him as a member of the Masonic order. [African-American Freemasons groups have existed in the United States since 1775, and the number of black lodges increased significantly after the Civil War.]  Gooden was also a trustee of the Williamson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.  

About the time he was elected to the legislature, Monroe W. Gooden began to acquire large tracts of land. One such purchase, recorded on November 22, 1887, was for 372 acres. He bought more land in 1890, and in 1897 he purchased still another large tract totaling over 500 acres. By the end of his life, he owned about a thousand acres, including the former Patterson plantation in the Brewer community. This property had been owned before the Civil War by General Bernard Markham Patterson (originally Patteson), another native Virginian and large-scale planter, who had also spent time in Giles County before coming to West Tennessee. At some point between 1890 and 1900 Gooden moved his large family into the old Patterson plantation house, a comfortable two-story, white frame building.

The Goodens had a large number of children: Mary, Monroe J., John, James/Jim, Lillie Bell, and Willa Ola Gooden. Ann already had one son, Dempsey (Demp) Shivers, when she married Monroe Gooden, and he is listed with the family in the 1880 census. Monroe W. had at least one other child as well, a son named Frank Gooden, whose mother was Mollie Coe.

Monroe Gooden and his wife Ann are buried in the Patterson Cemetery in Fayette County, northwest of Somerville. This section was originally a slave burial ground: most of the people buried there are descendants of slaves from the Patterson plantation. (Photo by John Marshall)

After his death, Monroe Gooden was buried in the family section he had created in the Patterson cemetery, which had originally been the slave burial ground on the Patterson plantation. Most members of his family are buried there with him. Nearly all the people buried on that site can trace their roots to the Patterson slaves. Several such cemeteries survive in District 5, all bearing the names of the original plantation owners. Although some are abandoned, several others, including the Patterson cemetery, are still in use today.

A brief obituary of Monroe Gooden appeared in the January 22, 1915, edition of the Fayette Falcon, Somerville, Tennessee:

“Fayette county lost one of her best colored citizens on last Tuesday when Monroe J. Gooden of the fifth district, died at a ripe old age. Monroe was one of the most thrifty men of his race in the county and owned several hundred acres of good land. He lived on this land and can be counted as a good citizen. He was quiet, unpretentious, and lived in peace and harmony with his white neighbors, holding their friendship and respect. He represented Fayette county in the state legislature in 1887 and was the last negro to sit in a legislature in any of the southern states during the reconstruction times. In recent years he has taken no part in politics, never even voting for years*. Many negroes could help to improve the condition and standing of their race by emulating the example of honesty and right living set by Monroe Gooden.”

* Note: There were very few African American Democrats during Reconstruction, so Gooden’s politics were quite unusual. It is likely (particularly since he seemed to withdraw completely from political attachment in his later years) that he became a Democrat during the years in which he was politically active in order to avoid friction with his white neighbors.