Christina Runkel, director of collections and interpretation at the Sam Davis Home and Museum, shares information about "Uncle" Charlie Waldron, a slave who lived at the Smyrna plantation prior to the Civil War. (TMP Photo/D. Whittle)
SMYRNA, Tenn. -- Historians around the globe know about Tennessean Sam Davis, the famous Confederate Coleman scout who chose death by a hangman’s noose rather than disclose identities of fellow Southern Civil War sympathizers.
However, few know about “Uncle” Charlie Waldron, who was born into slavery when his mother, Sally Waldron, gave birth to him either on, or near, the former Davis family plantation in Smyrna during the 1840s.
Even fewer know about the conditions Uncle Charlie survived as a slave to the Davis family leading up to the Civil War.
However, thanks to modern-day caretakers of the historic Sam Davis Home and Museum, the largest tourism attraction in Smyrna, here-to-fore untold details of his and other slave lives are being made public.
“For example, there are no records showing how plantation owner Charles Davis (the father of Sam Davis) treated his slaves,” said Christina Runkel, director of collections and interpretation at the Sam Davis Home and Museum. “However, due to an archeological dig by students from Middle Tennessee State University, we know that Uncle Charlie was curious, not only about his ancestors, but about Native Americans and their life styles too."
Due to the artifacts found in the interpretive dig beneath the cabin Uncle Charlie lived in for years, the students found multiple arrow heads and other items from the Native American culture that preceded the slave era of the United States, Runkel described while pointing out a brick likely built by the hands of slaves.
"This particular brick shows the prints of a foot, likely the foot of the slave who helped operate the kiln that bricks were fired in," she said. "This other brick shows the stroke of a hand likely swiped on the brick prior to the kiln."
“Slaves who had masonry talents were highly valued because they could construct structurally safe chimneys and make bricks for safe walkways,” Runkel added. “Many large plantation farms had individual kilns.”
But it was cotton and swine products, including cured hams, brought the most profits to the Davis plantation, she noted.
By 1850, Tennessee had evolved into a major slave-exporting state.
“In that year, eight slave auctioneers operated in Nashville, a slave market second only to Memphis in the state,” wrote author Bobby L. Lovett in his book, "The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930."
“Nashville’s slave traders purchased some of their human cargo in Kentucky and sold slaves to Alabama and Mississippi. After 1855 the Tennessee brokers exported slaves to Texas and Florida,” he said in the book.
Lovett also noted that while the slave business developed in Nashville, "not all local whites admired the peculiar institution.”
Typically, during the slavery era, there was no money exchanged when someone like Uncle Charlie was born to a slave mother. Uncle Charlie, like thousands of slaves in the South, was freed after the Civil War’s conclusion and President Abraham Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation passed Congress.
Uncle Charlie returned to the Davis plantation after 1900 when he lived in the home’s kitchen and in a nearby slave cabin.
“The children were automatically enslaved upon birth,” Runkel said.
At the peak period of upper middle-class prosperity in the 1850s, records show the Davis family owned more than 50 slaves.
“The Davis family was considered upper middle class, but not in the status of Murfreesboro’s more wealthy Maney plantation and Nashville’s Belmont plantation,” she said.
To commemorate February as Black History Month, the Sam Davis Home and Museum staff has created a special exhibit, entitled “African Americans on the Davis Plantation – Curator Talk and Tour Series.”
Historians, educators, parents, grandparents and children will have the opportunity to learn never before told details about slavery as it was practiced at the Davis plantation.
On Saturday, Feb. 8, Runkel will orchestrate an in-depth talk and tour when guests will get an inside look into the museum’s featured exhibit. Admission is $15 per person for the 90-minute presentation that starts at 1 p.m.
“We request reservations be made in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 615-459-2341,” Runkel said. “This is an opportunity to learn what went into creating the exhibit, an opportunity to dig into the history of the exhibit.
There will be a topic-specified guided tour of the historic house and grounds when participants will learn more about those who labored here as slaves, including Uncle Charlie.
There is another opportunity, this one free to the public, for parents and grandparents to share this important American history with children.
“On Sunday, Feb. 23, we will celebrate the rich musical history of African-Americans during after the Civil War,” Runkel said. “That will be part of the free Family Day from noon to 4 p.m. that is suitable for children of all ages. Families will get the chance to play an orutu (a stringed instrument), a thumb piano, a finger drum and more with this hands-on program while learning the role that music played to African-Americans laboring on the Davis plantation with songs.”
Two titles of enslaved African-American songs are “Follow The Drinking Gourd” and “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
“Visitors and children will also have the opportunity to create their own African tribal mask that day,” she said. “Admission is free and includes activities and museum admission. That’s when visitors can learn about several of those who were enslaved. In addition to Uncle Charlie, slave Isaac was an enslaved worker purchased by Charles Davis in 1854.”
Immediately after the war’s conclusion, Uncle Charlie is reported to be one of those slaves who walked away from the Davis plantation a free man.
Upon returning to the Davis farm, Uncle Charlie worked and lived until his death in his 80s in 1925, as verified by a death certificate provided for this forum by Rutherford County history researcher John Lodl, a former curator of the Sam Davis Home and Museum.
In history annals, young Sam Davis is remembered as the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy,” after his death by hanging. Rather than divulge the name of Confederate allies, he reportedly told his Union captors, “I would rather die a thousand deaths, rather than betray a friend.”
He was captured carrying Union war plans at Minor Hill, Tenn., on Nov. 20, 1863. His remains are buried behind the Sam Davis Home.