NASHVILLE, Tennessee — A developer has unearthed human remains that could be two centuries old while digging to lay the groundwork for a new Nashville project not far from a Civil War fort and an 1822 cemetery.
For Nashville, the discovery marks the final crossroads of times of economic boom and the city’s rich and sometimes troubled history — where new amenities arise on or near lands where people long ago settled, fought, or toiled, then died. and were buried, often with little record of their final resting places.
In a court filing earlier this month, AJ Capital Management noted that the discovery occurred near Fort Negley while the company was working on the Nashville Warehouse Co. mixed-use development, which will include apartments and commercial space.
Built by runaway slaves and freed black people for the Union, the fort has in recent years become a focal point in Nashville’s long journey from a center of the old Confederacy to a vibrant, modern city trying to cope with its rapid growth. . It is about half a mile away from the multi-building project, which is partially completed and flanked by a giant guitar board and construction crane in a rapidly developing neighborhood of businesses, bars and restaurants.
The company is seeking permission from a Nashville chancellorship judge to move the remains, including skeletal pieces and thin wood fragments believed to be from coffins, to the adjacent 200-year-old Nashville City Cemetery.
An archaeologist hired by the company wrote that her team discovered remains in May and again in June, describing them as not being of Native American origin and “estimated to date to the early 1800s,” possibly pre-Civil War. .
The archaeologist wrote that they are likely “isolated graves and not a more elaborate cemetery distribution,” saying the remains were only found in two of 53 4-by-6-foot excavations done to work on the foundation. Both were found about 15 feet below the ground, give or take a few feet. Officials from state archaeology, local police and the county medical examiner’s office were notified.
Some of each burial and the remains were unexposed and preserved in place, the archaeologist wrote.
A spokesperson for AJ Capital did not respond to a request for additional comment.
Who these potentially ancient humans might be is an open question, according to Learotha Williams, a professor at Tennessee State University who specializes in African-American studies, civil wars and reconstruction.
He wouldn’t rule out that the remains could be Native Americans, early settlers, Civil War soldiers, or black workers at the fort — though that seems less likely, given that there was evidence of coffins, he said, and that was a level of respect not typically afforded to black people at the time.
Williams said he would feel “a lot more comfortable if maybe an academic unit came” to study the area where the remains were found. He described Nashville’s “spotty record” of resolving friction between growth and historic preservation.
Williams did say things are “changing a bit,” but there’s still “a way to go” when it comes to Nashville’s sensitivity to histories of marginalized people.
Most notably, an attempt several years ago to rebuild the area near Fort Negley attracted enough attention that it was shelved because it was later discovered that the land beneath it was likely burial grounds.
Adjacent to the fort, developers planned to build a residential and entertainment complex where Nashville’s former minor league baseball stadium had stood, at the base of the fort.
After opposition grew, the city ordered an archaeological survey in January 2018 that determined human remains are likely still buried, possibly from enslaved people who built the fort.
The plans were halted and instead the city envisioned a park commemorating the fortress and the people who had to build it. The city has demolished the baseball stadium and is holding public meetings about the renovation. A final draft master plan is expected to be released this summer.
After Confederate troops surrendered to Union soldiers in Nashville in 1862, the Union took more than 2,700 runaway slaves and freed black people from their homes and churches and forced them to work on the fort, where they were placed in “smuggling camps.” ‘ lived. Although they were promised money for their labor, few were paid. About 600 to 800 of them died.
The fortress deteriorated over the years. The Works Progress Administration rebuilt it in 1936 and reopened it in 1938, but the fort fell into disrepair again. The Ku Klux Klan gathered there in the Jim Crow years, and according to the late author Robert Hicks, segregated softball fields were later built nearby.
The new development where the remains were found this year is further from the fort, across a series of railroad tracks from where the baseball stadium used to be.
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