On the grounds of Marcella Vivrette Smith Park sits Ravenswood Mansion, a premier destination for weddings, meetings and dinner, but behind that sit two small brick structures with an even deeper history scarred by the brutality of slavery and recognized by the City of Brentwood as an important piece of history.
The 370 square foot, one room, one and a half story brick buildings, known as the slave cabins, each have a large window on the longest side of the red brick and a chimney on the west side and have been part of an ongoing restoration effort by the City of Brentwood who owns the property.
Restoration work began in the summer and includes flooring replacements, repairs to the exterior brick facade and the restoration of a period-style Mantle restored to the East cabin.
Ravenswood was built in 1825 by James Hazard Wilson II and named for Sam Houston, who served as both the 6th governor of Tennessee and the 7th governor of Texas, and as Wilson’s best man on his wedding day.
According to the bound record "Historic Brentwood Homes Volume VII,” the Wilsons owned several plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana using Ravenswood as a summer home.
“It is said that they would bring their slaves from the Deep South to Ravenswood in the summer and take them back in the winter so that they could enjoy a better climate both seasons,” Historic Brentwood Homes Volume VII reads.
The book also notes Wilson’s funding of an entire company of Confederate soldiers at nearby during the American Civil War, stating that Wilson spent $10,000.
According to the CPI inflation Calculator, $10,000 in 1865 would equate to over $157,000 in 2019, if the noted $10,000 was recorded in US Dollars and not the Confederate State Dollar which was adopted by the Confederate States of America after secession.
“Historic Brentwood Homes Volume VII” also notes paints Wilson in a favorable light, although there is little record available about the experiences of the enslaved African Americans.
“James Wilson was a merciful and compassionate master to his hundreds of servants,” the book reads. “It was his custom to bring fifty at the time by boat from the deep south to Tennessee where they could rest and benefit from the more healthful climate. Older residents on Wilson Pike recall hearing their parents tell of them coming down the road singing on the way to Ravenswood."
While no accurate reporting is available on the living conditions or treatment of enslaved residents of Ravenswood is available, the overarching history of slavery in the United States is very clear.
Some estimates, such as made by author David Stannard in his book “American Holocaust,” estimate that some 30 to 60 million Africans died while enslaved in America.
Slavery in North America resulted not only in the buying and selling of human beings, but the separation of families, the abuse, rape, torture and killing of people seen as property for some 400 years.
Jim Thompson, a principal with Centric Architecture heads preservation projects and was brought in by the city as a consultant on preserving the Ravenswood Mansion property.
“I would say those two cabins are fairly unique in Middle Tennessee in that they are brick,” Thompson said. “The only other brick slave cabin that I’m aware of is at Carnton in Franklin and it’s a two-story one which is even more unusual.”
Thompson said that the two cabins were most likely used as homes for enslaved people who worked in the mansion as opposed to other enslaved people working in the fields.
Records indicate that 13 slave cabins existed on the property with the majority of the cabins stretching up the hill behind the main house.
Some of those cabins are believed by the city to have been wooden structures but the exact locations and the construction of the cabins have been lost to history.
“The most recent project is the restoration of the two salve cabins. I don’t know the exact date, but you would say circa 1825,” Thompson said. “There was a preliminary archeology report done and they found evidence of them but they didn’t go digging for them.”
According to the 1983 application for the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, outside of the slave cabins was a brick kitchen that was later torn down due to its unsafe condition.
According to the US Slave Census in 1860, Williamson County’s total population was 23,827 people with more than 12,000 enslaved people compared to just over 1,000 salve holders and only 45 free African Americans.
According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia, the experiences of slaves varied based on conditions such as the type of plantation that was operated, the size of the enslaved population and the disposition of the slave holder, noting that few large plantations existed in Tennessee.
“Even slaves with relatively good masters lived with the constant threat of being sold to pay their owners’ debts or as part of settling wills,” reads tn4me.org, a website developed by the Tennessee State Museum. “Technically, owners had almost absolute authority over their slaves.”
“They’re [the city] trying to maintain what in the preservation world we would call the view shed, that from the house you see these two buildings and you want to make sure that they remain because they are significant outbuildings for the entire story of the house,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that future plans for the slave cabin furthest from the mansion will include a reconstructed living history scene to help educate visitors on the life experiences and role of enslaved people in the history of Ravenswood Mansion.
“They are important parts of the story of plantation life and we need to as what I call temporary custodians of these historic sites need to maintain these facilities to make sure that the public understands all aspects of the story of the plantation,” Thompson said. “It’s not only the story of the people who lived in the main house but it’s the story of the enslaved African Americans who lived there and built these structures, so I think this is an important aspect of the story.”
Thompson added that there is a greater movement to fully recognize and educate the general population on all aspects of history, including the brutal history of slavery in the United States.
“All historic sites are being pushed to tell the full story and not just the other story and I think that it’s a welcome change so that we all know what happened and we learn the lessons of what we did to people,” Thompson said. “It’s important to pass along history.”
Brentwood Assistant City Manager Jay Evans said that the city wants to maintain the structures upkeep so that future generations can understand the history of all people in Middle Tennessee, especially that of enslaved people.
“Without preservation efforts like this one, the story of this land would be relegated to movies and history books. Every year that passes increases the importance of preserving the few historic structures remaining,” Evans said.
While the history of slavery in Williamson County and the entire United States cannot be fully understood, the brick walls that remain speak to the complex lives lived in bondage with only glimpses of the hope of freedom through a singular window and cracks in a wooden door.