Oaklands Mansion, Changing the Narrative from Antebellum to Accountability

Oakland Mansion, Murfreesboro, TN.

By Ashley Benkarski

MURFREESBORO, TN — The plantation once owned by the Maneys, one of Murfreesboro’s earliest and most influential families, has recently come under new management and is working to tell and uplift the stories of those who suffered at hands of the slaves owners and built their grandiose home brick by brick — but it hasn’t always been this way.

The property’s past is imbued with all the trappings of injustice found on plantations, but this site has, for the longest time, been one of

A brick bearing the fingerprint of one of the slaves who built the Oaklands Mansion for the Maney family. Photo by Ashley Benkarski

particular importance to Confederate supporters, holding “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” every July 13.

Early managers of the Oaklands property capitalized on Forrest’s raid at the plantation, where Union troops were defeated and Murfreesboro was surrendered to the Confederacy. At the time of the Mansion’s founding in the Jim Crow era, Forrest became its marketing tool.

James Manning, Executive Director of Oaklands Mansion, has been working with intention to change not only the narrative but the brand altogether. His plan to truly honor the mission statement includes working to change nearly everything about the way Oaklands Mansion is operated, but the change ultimately improves the historical experience by including the stories of the slaves who worked to keep it running.

“We have been methodically changing programs, the website, and tours in the house,” Manning said, adding that the egregious Antebellum Academy held there has been dropped completely and work is being done to update and re-release the education page on its website. Students of nearby Middle Tennessee State University “gave me a harsh reality,” he said, causing him to realize the Mansion’s mission statement of being a welcoming site for all visitors wasn’t matching with the experience for many.

The celebrations of slave owners overshadowed the very lives of the slaves that are mostly forgotten, with the exception of the McKnight family. Descendant Elma McKnight made a comment that stayed with Manning when he asked what came to her mind as they walked the rooms, he said. “Her response was ‘Do you want to know? Belligerent,’” he recalled,

Photos of the ancestors of Elma Black McKnight that can be traced back to the enslaved at the Maney home, including one of McKnight and her son David as he proudly holds an award for his work as an educator. Photos of the family date back to Lucy Sykes Maney, great-grandmother of Elma McKnight who was born into slavery on the Maney property.

and that gave him pause.

“Our change has got to be long-term for our community to trust Oaklands with stories,” Manning remarked. “It’s beyond time.”

A table in the room holds pictures of the McKnight family throughout the years, from Lucy Sykes Maney who was born into slavery on the property to McKnight’s son David, an educator continuing the legacy of teaching as his mother did before him. Her cousin, Elma Sublett, was a teacher at Holloway High School. The photo of David and Elma in 2013 shows him proudly presenting the Teacher of the Year award he received from Murfreesboro City Schools.

Luke and Ada Maney, grandparents of Elma McKnight, were founding members of Murfreesboro’s First Baptist Church. Ada was the daughter of Lucy Maney.

He hopes to hold a “family reunion” in the next few years with descendants from both sides of the Mansion’s history, possibly in 2022. “[The reunion] will be a time for descendants or those connected to them to have that one day where they can come at no charge to see how things are being interpreted and share stories,” he said. 

An advisory committee was established to be more mindful of resources and activities and Manning is working with the African American Historical Society of Rutherford County to research and restore a section of Evergreen Cemetery located on nearby Greenland Drive with volunteer members of the Archaeological Society and restoration experts.

Research is also being done for Oaklands Mansion’s Untold Stories Project, but all the data they have is from public records which were destroyed or lost. There may be descendants, churches or funeral homes that may have old records they’ve been entrusted with, and Manning hopes the outreach they’ve been engaging in will help them find and add more information to honor those who were so easily forgotten.

For more information on the lives of those enslaved at the Oaklands Mansion, call 615-893-0022, visit oaklandsmansion.org or conservehistory.com/projects/untoldstories/. For more information or to donate to the ongoing effort between Oaklands Mansion and AAHSRC to memorialize the unnamed buried in Section M of the Evergreen Cemetery click on the “Slavery” tab on the Mansion’s website.

You can also follow Oaklands on Facebook for updates and events.