By Toni Beamer
NASHVILLE, TN — The United States Colored Troops headquarters, located on Austin Peay’s campus, was finally memorialized with an historical marker in February of 2023.
Established at the behest of President Abraham Lincoln on May 22, 1863, the United States Colored Troops were an important part of the Union’s efforts against the Confederate Army. Over 1,700 Black Americans were stationed in the 101st regiment in Clarksville Tennessee. They joined the union to fight for their freedom.
Tracy Jepson, a researcher with the Tennessee African American Historical Group, has done extensive research into the lives of the soldiers and their families, preserving their stories for generations to come.
“I think it’s time for the perspective of the troops to be told in the South,” Jepson said.
For example, Jepson relayed the story of Cyrus Cook, a member of Company D in the 101st Regiment of the USCT in 1865 who was in love and married to a white woman during the time of miscegenation laws, which are laws meant to ban people from engaging in interracial marriages.
Even today, laws banning marriages like Cook’s are still on the books in Tennessee. On March 9, 2023, The Tennessee House of Representatives passed HB0878 which allows clerks to refuse solemnizing a marriage “based on the person’s conscience or religious beliefs.”
Another is Joseph Farley, who was a slave in 1856, and who saw 100 Klan members on Franklin Street on their way to hang a man, but 600 members of the USCT stopped them and the Klansmen never bothered them again.
There are many stories—from those of soldiers to enslaved people—but only about 100 of them can be found, archived at Fisk University in Nashville. These soldiers fought not only for their individual freedoms, but for the freedom of a people. “They originally probably didn’t see a future and hope for their lives. They had not been able to self-actualize, to choose the direction of their lives, and now they have an opportunity to join the Union,” Jepson said.
It’s been a long road in getting the troops their due; a marker honoring their contributions was meant to be officially installed along with other markers detailing the history of Black Americans in Clarksville in August of 2022 on “Freedom Day,” the day enslaved people in Clarksville were emancipated. The timing of the unveilings was intentional.
But that didn’t happen— Errors on the marker prevented it from being unveiled on time. However, those errors have been corrected and the new marker for the USCT has joined the others on Austin Peay’s campus and around the city of Clarksville.
Frederick Murphy, a documentarian and Clarksville native, helped get traction for the establishment of the markers and was present at their unveiling last summer. The story is part of his extensive portfolio of documenting the histories of Black Americans throughout the South with his project, History Before Us.
To find more information on the USCT and the contributions of Black Americans in Clarksville, visit the Tennessee African American Historical Group’s website (tnafricanamericanhistoricalgroup.com) or you can visit historybeforeus.com.