By Austin Newell
NASHVILLE, TN — Beneath a memorial of several stones in the shape of a drinking gourd on the land of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate, lies the remains of 60 individuals, ranging from as young as one year and up to 45 years old.
The Hermitage found themselves in the possession of these remains after they were found at a neighboring slave cemetery. Upon learning the slaves had a history with Rachel Jackson’s family, the wife of Andrew Jackson, the Hermitage agreed to become the final resting place for these remains.
Since the memorial’s completion, the Hermitage has held regular gatherings to pay respect to the individuals buried there. This year, on Feb. 25, the estate hosted “Our Peace, Follow the Drinking Gourd: Enslaved Memorial.”
The event took place inside the church on the estate’s land, where those enslaved to Jackson’s family regularly worshipped. The program emphasized the importance of viewing those who lay beneath the memorial just outside the church as not abstract concepts, but as real people who lived and died.
“They shared their skills and their talents, in making this place as beautiful then as it is today,” said Robert McDonald, a member of the Hermitage’s board of Trustees.
This idea was punctuated by the event’s conclusion, in which participants were asked to lay flowers provided by the Hermitage on the memorial rocks outside. On each stem of each flower was the name of a slave.
The shape of the memorial itself is significant, as it was designed to depict the constellation of The Big Dipper, or the Drinking Gourd, which was used by the underground railroad to lead slaves to freedom. Fittingly, during this time, Andrew Jackson Elementary’s Eagle Honor Choir sang the folk song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to the gathered participants.
Dr. Dennis C. Dickerson, a Professor of American and African American History at Vanderbilt University, and who also gave special remarks at the event, said one thing he hoped people would take away from the service was how much these individuals contributed to society.
“Keep in mind, enslaved people, many of them worked as artisans, and skilled persons, but this was uncompensated labor. These were persons who did important work, skilled work, artistic work, for which they were not compensated and I think that needs to be acknowledged … When we look at a President like Andrew Jackson, or you look at a President like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, they didn’t get there by themselves, they were underwritten by a whole host of uncompensated people. And those persons who made their presidencies and made their national standing possible have to be acknowledged as being major contributors without whom those persons would not have attained the lofty stations that they achieved,” Dickerson said.
But he also spoke about the importance of teaching the younger generation about slavery. Specifically, he invoked the Eagle Choir, emphasizing that children learning about the institution benefits them not only as students, but as human beings.
“They ought to sing about it, know about it and they’ll be better adults as a result of this experience.”