The Mitchel Log Cabin near Stones River National Battlefield was used as a hospital during the Civil War and was inhabited by freed slaves after the war. (Photos courtesy of the Rutherford County Archives)
If there’s one thing organizers of Murfreesboro’s Bicentennial Celebration want the public to remember, it’s the importance of history.
This month’s schedule includes three events that mark the beginnings of three important aspects of Murfreesboro’s history - its first black church, the founding of the Rutherford County seat and a TV series of the city’s storytellers.
“If you don’t know your past and where you’ve been, you don’t know yourself,” said Nancy L. Bryson Vaughan, historian of First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro on East Castle Street.
She is also the author of “Bethel,” an original play that is based on the life of the Rev. Nelson Grover Merry, who was the first black pastor of the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro about 150 years ago.
Merry, a freed slave, became the first ordained black minister in Nashville and was the founding president of the Tennessee Negro Baptist Convention and the Stones River Baptist Association, as well as the organization of 14 Baptist Church congregations before his death in 1884.
The play was written to honor Merry’s legacy and his role in the life of the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, as well as to celebrate the church’s 158th anniversary and Murfreesboro’s Bicentennial.
It’s also meant to remind the youth of Murfreesboro’s black community of their history, Vaughan added.
“I’m at that age, where if I don’t write it down, our children won’t know our history,” she said.
Vaughan wants younger generations to understand their history and the trials their ancestors lived through -- like the story of Bethel, a community of slaves in southeast Rutherford County.
“The slaves were allowed to live there and work on the plantations and (in) big houses,” she said, explaining the slaves had to work in and around Murfreesboro and were transported to work via wagons.
In 1853, those slaves also organized their own church, which would later become the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro. The black church was overseen by the white First Baptist Church on East Main Street, which, after the Civil War, donated its old building on the corner of Spring and Sevier streets to the congregation.
From 1861 to 1862, Merry was the first black pastor of the First Colored Baptist Mission in Murfreesboro, which eventually became the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro. He later returned to the First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, in Nashville where he had been ordained and baptized.
Vaughan said Merry left town in a hurry after “some incidents that happened when he was here.”
To learn more about those incidents, see the play at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, located at 738 E. Castle St.
“It’s really about two different sets of people in history,” she said about the play, which came to her in visions.
Vaughan said she was compelled by God to write the church’s history and the play.
The names, characters and words in the play would come to her in dreams, and she would write the scenes on a notepad kept next to her bed.
Vaughan would then fill in details with research and information her mother had saved over the years.
“It really is a true story,” Vaughan said, adding she’s a third generation member of the church through her mother’s side. Her mother also kept the history of the church, which served as a wealth of information when Vaughan wrote the play.
“This is about life in 1853,” she said. “As I tell the children, I did not make history; someone else did, and we cannot change it.”
But what we can do is remember it.
One way to remember is to take part in the yearlong Murfreesboro Bicentennial Celebration.
Throughout November, local residents can celebrate “Our Beginnings,” according to former state Rep. John Hood, who serves as chairman of this month’s events.
Hood also moderates the City TV Bicentennial Series, Murfreesboro Storytellers, which will include Murfreesboro businessman Ransom Jones, President of the Rutherford County Historical Society Greg Tucker and retired Air National Guardsman Jim Rich Roberts as guests throughout November.
The program can be viewed on City TV throughout the week or on the city’s website, murfreesborotn.gov.
“It’s significant that we have reached our 200th anniversary,” he said, adding that “Our Beginnings” is a time to celebrate the name change of Murfreesborough to Murfreesboro.
Also featured in this month celebratory events will be Read To Succeed’s Celebrity Spelling Bee, where President Madison, Col. Hardy Murfree, Thomas Rucker and Capt. William Lytle – the major players in Murfreesboro’s founding – will make an appearance in a Pre-Bee spell-off.
The Bee begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Patterson Park Community Center.
Hood said the year-long celebration is a good way to remember some local history and learn some more, as well as create new events, like the play, and promote existing events, like the Celebrity Bee.
“The mayor (Tommy Bragg), in a very wonderful way, made this a year-long event,” he said.
And you know what they say.
“It’s important to understand where we came from,” Hood said, “so we can understand where we are going.”