Several years ago, The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville ran a story about a planned celebration of the old Fairvue Plantation in Sumner County, Tennessee. Best I can recall, the item I read made little mention of the early 19th century man who owned the old Fairvue Plantation. However, it seemed to me that one could not separate the plantation from the principal man associated with it in Tennessee history. In my mind, the two necessarily went hand in hand, and it was hard for me to envision how it was possible to celebrate one without simultaneously celebrating the other. This disturbed me enough to write a reply to the newspaper article, which is shown in a revised and edited form below. You may think or feel differently about this, and you are entitled to your thoughts and feelings. This is what I thought and the way I felt about it at the time.
As a professional archaeologist and a sometimes historian in relation to it, I have mixed feelings about celebrating the history of the old Fairvue Plantation in Sumner County, Tennessee. I think it would be more appropriate to leave out words such as celebrate. The phrases “telling the history of Fairvue” or “telling the story of Fairvue” would be better. In addition, I do not think the historical telling of this story should be sanitized to remove or gloss over the evil that once resided within it and its 19th century owner (Isaac Franklin).
When I was growing up in Gallatin, Tennessee, in the 1950s and 1960s, an inherited memory of the American Civil War (1861-1865) was still an active force in Sumner County. As in the book Gone with the Wind, many of the local citizens seemed to feel that an ancient culture and way of life to which they were entitled had been ripped from them by the awful and unjustified actions of President Abraham Lincoln. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. was suddenly on the scene in the 1960s and taking actions that destroyed even those few broken remnants of the Old South that had been salvaged, however imperfectly, under Jim Crow. Among the wealthy old dowagers of Sumner County and their spouses (long dead), there seemed to be a powerful impetus to attempt a resurrection of the Old South and its culture in Sumner County by purchasing broken down antebellum homes, restoring them, and implementing snobby tea parties at 4:00 p.m. on weekdays. Naturally, I had nothing against restoring the old homes, but I thought the assorted attempts to recreate what was regarded as the precious social graces of an elite class of people from a lost time were more than a little disgusting, especially when one considered the economic behaviors and practices that funded tea time in 1845.
As I look back on the history of the old Fairvue Plantation, the baseline truth of the matter is that Isaac Franklin was a reprehensible human being. He was not just a slave owner but also―above all else―one of the Old South’s most important slave brokers and traders. He worked at the very pinnacle of this disgusting industry in Natchez, Mississippi, and he was a broker in human misery.
The life of Isaac Franklin deserves no celebration whatsoever. He made a place for himself in American history, but it should be remembered always as a dark, sinister, and evil place, unless we are willing to again embrace the low-life behaviors that won him his fortune, which I doubt many would want to do today. Isaac Franklin may have been a man created by his own time in history, but in the total sweep of human history, the things he did were evil. I think he needs to be judged by American history on the basis of the evil he did. No beautiful mansions, thoroughbred race tracks, grand acreages, or afternoon tea times should act as a pleasing curtain to hide the historical actions of this man from future generations. As the neighborhoods of Ferguson and Baltimore burn, we need to remember that the original historical remains of the old Fairvue Plantation were in some measure built and maintained with money from the sale of human beings into slavery, and the negative fallout from the institution of slavery still haunts us to this very day.