A wealthy black Southern planter who owned many slaves?
Dr. George Smith (second from left) is a re-enactor in the 13th U.S. Colored Troops regiment. Smith, a local historian, was shocked to find Sherrod Bryant, a freed slave who owned slaves in Rutherford County. (File photo)
The image challenges many preconceived notions of the Antebellum South and its social structure, but such a shocking image was reality in Rutherford, Davidson and Wilson counties.
Along the borders where these three counties meet lived Sherrod Bryant, a free black man whose land holdings totaled nearly 1,000 acres.
The site of his plantation has largely been overtaken by the backwaters of Percy Priest Lake on the Stones River and Long Hunter State Park.
But a 300-acre portion, which his sons later inherited, became known as Bryant’s Grove Recreation Area in northernmost Rutherford County, along what is now Hobson and Couchville pikes.
A state historical marker now stands at the very spot to inform visitors of this surprising story.
Bryant was known as probably the wealthiest “Free Person of Color” in Middle Tennessee prior to the Civil War.
“Free Person of Color” was a legal definition given to freed slaves and their descendants, and they usually gained their freedom when a sympathetic master granted it to them in a court of law.
They were required to carry proof of their free status at all times, and they had to produce their papers to anyone who asked, Rutherford County Archivist John Lodl explained.
Such was the case with Bryant, who was born into slavery in Granville County, N.C., in 1781 where his master actually provided him schooling within the household.
He relocated to the Tennessee frontier near the settlement of Old Jefferson on the Stones River and immediately began buying land, a guaranteed mark of wealth and power at that time.
The 1850 U.S. Census shows Bryant owning $15,000 worth of real estate and an additional $10,900 of property including slaves, farm implements and livestock.
He came to operate two large farming operations, one in present-day Donelson in Davidson County and another in northern Rutherford County, which was later deeded to his four sons.
Bryant owned 21 male and female slaves ranging from infancy to 44 years old by the time the U.S. Slave Census enumerator came knocking on Sept. 26, 1850.
He died in 1854, and his will was filed in Davidson County where it remains in the Metro Archives.
His land holdings were divided among his sons because women could not own property at the time. As the debate over slavery became more hostile over the years leading to the War Between The States, they began to make sure of their own freed status with the proper papers.
Within the 1861 Rutherford County Court Minutes, housed at the Rutherford County Archives building on Rice Street in Murfreesboro, is a document signed by John Jones, county clerk at that time, certifying that Bryant’s son Robertson, age 18, was a “colored young man” who was “free born, his father and mother both being free and respectable by colored persons.”
“It is somewhat odd that his sons and daughters did not seek the proper court documents for their freed status until 1861,” Lodl said. “But if you think about it, everyone in the local community knew who they were so they did not have much trouble until the Civil War conflict loomed.
“They may have also considered relocating as the war approached, which would definitely require proper identification as a free person of color,” he added.
Most of their inherited lands were lost in the nearly lawless aftermath of the war, and Bryant’s peculiar story was largely forgotten by historians who passed it by when documenting the facts of life in the Antebellum South.
But interest in Bryant’s life has been sparked by his remaining descendants and local Murfreesboro historian Dr. George Smith.
Smith and descendant Carl Bryant gave a presentation on the subject to a crowd of about 60 assembled at Long Hunter State Park in 2007 to learn more about Sherrod Bryant.
Smith contributes to black history awareness locally as a re-enactor in the local U.S. Colored Troops regiment.
“It blew my mind that 30 minutes away from where I live, we have a black man who had slaves in Middle Tennessee,” he said.
According to Lodl, Carl Bryant is currently writing a book on his famous ancestor, which will ensure Bryant’s place in history and provide further insight for those who truly wish to understand this aspect of American history.
“There were many types of relationships that existed between blacks and whites at the time,” Smith said, urging everyone to look beyond stereotypes in order to gain a full understanding of black history in America.