Sally Thomas  (1787 – 1850)

by James A. Hoobler.

On to Liberty (Theodore Kaufmann, 1867; Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

Born into slavery in Charlottesville, Virginia, Sally Thomas, the slave of Charles Thomas, bore two sons to John, her owner’s brother – John, born in 1808, and Henry, born a year later. Around 1817 Sally and her children were sent over 550 miles to Thomas family land near Nashville. Here her owner allowed her to take in laundry if she gave him some of the profits. Ceding control over her, he made her a “quasi-slave,” who could rent her own house, move about freely, buy, sell, and negotiate her own business contracts. Although in time her owner even stopped requiring her to share her earnings with him, Sally was still legally considered his property.

Justice John C. Catron (portrait by Chester Harding, Tennessee Portrait Project/TSLA)

 In 1827 attorney John C. Catron fathered Sally’s third son, James P. Thomas. Sally and her children lived then at the corner of Cherry (4th Avenue) and Deaderick Streets, a block from the Davidson County Courthouse.  There she ran her laundry business, saving money to purchase the freedom of her children. Sally’s oldest son, John, worked for a Nashville barge captain, even taking his last name. Captain Rapier, who had taught John to read and write, saved his own money to free John, and in 1829 his executors obtained permission from the Alabama General Assembly to use estate funds to purchase John’s freedom. 

In 1834 Sally learned that she, Henry, and James were being returned to Virginia to settle her owner’s estate. Fearing they would be sold separately, she urged Henry to escape. Hiding by day, avoiding farms where he might be spotted, Henry fled north to Louisville, Kentucky, only to be caught and jailed. Still chained, he miraculously escaped the first night in a stolen boat. Surviving a plunge over the Falls of The Ohio, he crossed into Indiana, where a sympathetic individual removed his chains. Henry eventually arrived in Buffalo, New York, where he worked as a barber; he later moved to Canada.  

Meanwhile, to keep James from being sold away from her, Sally persuaded attorney Ephraim Hubbard Foster to help her buy the child from John Martin, the Thomas relative who owned him. Martin wanted $400 for the seven-year-old, but Sally had saved only $350. Foster agreed to lend her the other $50 and arranged the sale with Martin. Although Sally soon paid off her debt to Ephraim Foster and personally held James’s bill of sale and “free papers,” under Tennessee law James was still considered Foster’s slave. Since the 1834 state Constitution required free blacks to leave Tennessee immediately or return to slavery, James had to appear to be someone’s property in order to remain in Nashville.

Senator Ephraim H. Foster (portrait by Washington B. Cooper, Tennessee Portrait Project / Cheekwood Museum of Art)

Sally purchased her own freedom with the assistance of Godfrey M. Fogg (nephew of educator Francis B. Fogg, and law partner of Ephraim Foster), who loaned her part of the money. Deeds in the Davidson County Courthouse list Sally as the property of G. M. Fogg, and James as the property of Ephraim Foster – legally Sally and James would remain slaves until the courts ruled them free and permitted them to remain in Tennessee as free persons. Regrettably, Sally died in 1850, before such a ruling was made. James, now running a barbershop in the house Sally had rented at Deaderick and Cherry, purchased a grave site for her in City Cemetery, erecting a tombstone inscribed, “Sally Thomas 1787-1850.”  On March 6, 1851, Ephraim Foster petitioned the Davidson County Court to allow him to free James. The court found in favor of the petition, Foster posted a bond, and James was free. James’s own petition to be permitted to remain in Nashville was also approved, with the posting of a good character bond. Ironically, James was the natural son of Tennessee’s Chief Justice, John C. Catron, whom Andrew Jackson had appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court during his last days in office, when the court was expanded to nine members. Thus Catron’s Dred Scott ruling that African Americans were property and had no citizenship rights applied to his own son.  (2009)

Dedication ceremony for new Sally Thomas grave marker, 2009

Sally Thomas died during Nashville’s 1850 cholera epidemic. In 1908 her tombstone could still be found, but by 2005 it was no longer standing. In 2009 a replacement tombstone for Sally Thomas was dedicated in a well-attended ceremony at City Cemetery.

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.

The story of the Thomas-Rapier family is the subject of the book In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Woodlawn Memorial Park

by Doris Boyce.

A scene in the Forehand compound in Woodlawn Memorial Park (photo from NHN collection)

Woodlawn Memorial Park, a cemetery established in the 1930s and acquired in 1993 by Houston-based Roesch-Patton Corporation, occupies a piece of ground rich in local history. The property, which eventually became known as Melrose, was part of John Topp’s Revolutionary War Grant #461 of November 25, 1788. The original 960 acres were reduced by a sale to Michael Deadrick, first president of the old Nashville Bank. The remaining 205 acres were purchased in 1836 by a United States Senator from Louisiana, who built a mansion there. In December 1865, the property was the site of a field hospital during the Battle of Nashville. Even today a group of log cabins, a spring house, and a man-made pond can be found near the site where the Melrose mansion once stood. Present-day Woodlawn cemetery is part of the 205-acre site that once ran from what is now the Melrose shopping area on Franklin Road to Melrose Avenue between Bransford Avenue and Nolensville Road. 

Melrose Mansion, built in 1836 by Louisiana planter Alexander Barrow II, was sold six years later to John W. Saunders, who died shortly after taking possession of the property. In 1845 Saunders’ widow married Aaron V. Brown, just after his inauguration as the thirteenth governor of Tennessee. Brown, a law partner of James K. Polk (who was elected President the same year Brown became governor), had over a 24-year period served in both the Tennessee State Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.  He later served as President Buchanan’s Postmaster from 1857 until Brown’s death in 1859.     

The widow Brown suffered severe financial losses as a result of the Civil War. After her death in 1892, the property, by then only 130 acres, was sold at auction to Godfrey M. Fogg. The house would later pass into the hands of first the Sinclair and then the Bransford families. In time it became the Melrose House Restaurant, which operated in the building until the mid-1970s. Eventually two fires, in 1975 and 1979, destroyed the old mansion.  

A few years earlier, in 1966, the Forehand area of the property took its name, when George and Lillian Forehand leased the stone spring house where the Melrose Mansion’s owners kept milk, butter, and other perishables. They attached their own home to the spring house, which became the Forehands’ living room, with its three-foot thick walls and cork floor.

A plaque beside the spring points out that the Confederate works ran 200 yards south of the Melrose residence; a second marker explains that a Confederate cannon used in the Battle of Nashville was borrowed from the home of Spencer McGavock. The cannon, featured in a photograph taken at the dedication of the memorial in 1969, no longer guards the plaque. The gun’s current location is a mystery. 

One of the two log cabins on the Forehand property. (photo from NHN collection)

As the Forehand house was under construction, the family acquired two more historic structures: log cabins that had once stood on ground now covered by Percy Priest Lake. Numbered before being dismantled, the logs were transported to their present location, where they were carefully reassembled. In front of one of the cabins is a placard identifying it as “one of the oldest remaining houses from the early American era.” 

The cabins’ original owner, Tennessee pioneer Alexander Carper, came to Davidson County from Virginia and settled in the Cane Ridge community of Antioch. He married in 1825 and built his log home near Mill Creek.  Descendant William Washington “Wash” Carper and his family dedicated the buildings in 1969 to Woodlawn Memorial Park for historical preservation. 

The Forehand enclave nestles among sheltering trees on a bend of the road behind the Woodlawn funeral home. The couple created an idealistic pioneer setting there, ornamented with flowering shrubs and plants blooming in pots and hanging baskets. Cats napped on the porches, ducks swam in the lily pond, and the flag soared proudly above a colorful garden. 

Eventually graves began to encroach upon the Forehand property. After George’s death in 2001, Lillian lived there alone, surrounded by the cemetery. Armed with pistol and shotgun, and under the watchful eyes of the Berry Hill police, she kept the vandals away. Eventually Lillian, too, moved from the house. 

Memorials are created to be visited, contemplated, appreciated, and enjoyed. Today the Forehand compound features the spring and spring house of Melrose Mansion, the two Carper cabins, plaques to remind us of our Civil War past, and a tribute to Governor Aaron V. Brown.  Sadly, few Nashvillians and no newcomers are aware of the existence of this historic oasis within the well-known cemetery.