Six months ago, the African American Heritage Society of Williamson County entered into an option to purchase the historic Merrill-Williams House at 264 Natchez St. in Franklin.
Now, with more than $1.2 million raised toward the purchase and restoration of the home as a Center for Historic Preservation and Study of African-American History, the closing on the purchase has been set for Friday at 11 a.m.
The community is encouraged to help celebrate, and lunch will be provided.
The option to purchase for $610,000 was signed on May 1 with the owners, Cassandra and Wilbert Taylor. Cassandra is the daughter of the late Fred and Maddie Williams. The option allowed the AAHS and the community one year to raise the money to purchase the property. Not only have the purchase funds been raised, but significant dollars have been donated toward the restoration of the home.
Local preservation leader Emily Magid donated $1 million to the project, and an additional $210,000 has been raised in cash and pledges, along with more than $100,000 of in-kind gifts for services.
The property where the Merrill-Williams house is now located was originally part of Carter Farm prior to the American Civil War. Significantly, during the Battle of Franklin (Nov. 30, 1864) a portion of the main Federal line of defense ran along the edge of the property, which today fronts 11th Avenue.
The story of the Merrill-Williams house begins with Moses Merrill, a slave owned by Charles A. Merrill, who was a partner in the Nashville slave trading firm of Merrill, Webb and Co.
“While we do not know the exact date on which Moses was acquired, we do know that in the late 1850s, Merrill’s firm advertised both purchase and sale of slaves almost daily in Nashville newspapers,” Alma McLemore, president of the AAHS, said in a press release.
“Upon his death, Charles Merrill bequeathed both land and a yearly stipend of $100 a quarter to his former slave, Moses. Then, in 1881, as a free man, Moses Merrill acquired the property at what is now 264 Natchez St. Merrill eventually conveyed the property to Thomas A. Williams.”
According to the 1920 census, Thomas A. Williams, a local Black businessman, and his wife Jane, a nurse, resided at 264 Natchez. Williams, who owned the house and property outright, mortgage-free, was the son of A.N.C. Williams, a former slave who became a prominent business owner in Franklin.
Upon his death in 1946, Thomas A. Williams’ residence at 264 Natchez St. was left to his family. On Sept. 7,1950, Fred Douglas Williams, grandson of A.N.C. Williams and nephew of T.A. Williams, purchased the property for $4,250 from the heirs of Thomas A. Williams.
Fred Williams lived in the house until his death at the age of 86 in 2012, at which time his daughter Cassandra Williams Taylor inherited the home where she had grown up and which held so many memories for her and for many others who grew up in the Natchez Community.
Situated on a prominent corner within the National Register-listed Natchez Street Historic District, the Merrill-Williams property and its history represent important and often overlooked truths about the development of Franklin.
Rising from the very ashes of the Civil War, this historic neighborhood became a strong African American enclave that endured the terror of the Klan and the abuses of Jim Crow America, yet survived to witness the transformations of the Civil Rights movement. This area still serves today as a foundation for African American identity and culture in Franklin.
“The Merrill-Williams home’s potential to tell stories of trial, triumph and transformation is unrivaled,” McLemore said. “Its preservation will elevate a larger public understanding of Black history, while also serving as a lasting sign of commitment to the recognition and protection of the fuller story of this remarkable town.”
Once complete, the AAHS and MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation will create a Heritage Center which will serve as a multipurpose historic property. This setting will provide a permanent office for the AAHS and an opportunity to interpret the many phases of the Natchez Street historic district.
It will also create a place for discovering the Merrill and Williams family stories, as well as providing a repository for information regarding the development of the Natchez Street community as a prominent Black neighborhood.
For more information or to donate, visit aahswc.org.