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).

Slavery at the Hermitage: Fascinating Finds

by Ashley Layhew White.

The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s imposing home, survives today as a memorial to American history, to the old days of Tennessee, and to true love. Still standing proud and stately, it has endured poverty, the War Between the States, and the 1998 tornado. Today, perhaps more than ever before, The Hermitage serves to inspire and instruct us.

Recent archeological work at The Hermitage has uncovered some significant details of everyday 19th century slave life. Interesting finds in and near slave cabins on the property include sewing items, toys, and bits of money. The discovery of pencils and slates in every excavated cabin, indicating that Andrew Jackson’s slaves were literate, is surprising and leads us to re-examine some of our ideas about slave life. Good luck charms found at the dig sites are also fascinating, especially the Hand of Fatima which was used to ward away evil spirits. Underground “hidey holes” have also been great sources for archeologists at The Hermitage. Items stolen from the main house or passed along from a slave on a neighboring farm were commonly hid in these secret places.

Though it has become more or less expected to find them on plantation digs, the excavation of gun parts at The Hermitage is nevertheless startling. Hammers, flints, and lead shot have been found, pointing toward gun possession among the slaves. Why would Andrew Jackson allow slaves to bear arms? One plausible explanation is that the slaves used guns to hunt game which included raccoons, squirrels, turtles, and deer. By allowing slaves to hunt, plantation owners could promote self-sufficiency in the slave community.

Archeologists at The Hermitage are optimistic about what the future will teach us about the past, and their successful work reinforces the role of the great plantation as a national treasure. The many fortunate discoveries they have made tempt us to ask: Has the Hand of Fatima had something to do with it?

Ashley Layhew White was a junior at McGavock High School in Donelson, Tennessee, when she wrote this essay for the May-June 2000 newsletter. Since that time she has become a respected historian in her own right.