New book on history of slavery in Tennessee

“History Bill,” as former Tennessean reporter Bill Carey is known in overseeing the non-profit Tennessee History For Kids organization, has waded through hundreds of old newspaper archives to produce a book that starkly illustrates how deeply slavery was once embedded in a state that now is often presented as a leader – well, at least in comparison to other Southern states — in opposition to the now-outlawed ownership of men, women and children by other men, women and children.

The title is Runaways, Coffles and Fancy Girls, subtitled A History of Slavery in Tennessee. In his documentation, newspaper ads offering rewards for runaway slaves are the primary focus and more than 900  are specifically listed in the bibliography, starting in the 1790s and continuing into the closing days of the Civil War. Perhaps surprisingly, there are many from East Tennessee, where slave ownership was less common than in the western and central sections. Many ads are reproduced as printed and are, well, repulsive by contemporary standards. And while some state histories focus on a couple of short-lived abolitionist publications, Carey makes clear that most papers were ready to profit from slavery and often defend it as well.

All county sheriffs made money from seizing and holding runaways, either collecting fees from owners reclaiming them or from selling those unclaimed at public auction,  it seems. There are also ‘want ads’ for those seeking to buy slaves. Slave ads, in general, were as big a revenue source for media of the day as real estate ads, Carey summarizes. Among the newspapers profiting was the Knoxville publication of William “Parson” Browlow, who later became the controversial governor of Tennessee during the Reconstruction era.

Slaves were an elemental part of banking business profits, too, thanks to purchases financed through loans. And middlemen owners and many other businesses as noted in a chapter on ‘hiring out’ of slaves.

While about one-fourth of Tennessee white citizens owned slaves, a lot more (and many businesses) rented them – sometimes with a bank as an intermediary. The Tennessee state Capitol building was built with some rented slave labor, for example, and at least one slave died in quarrying rock used in the construction. City and county governments owned or rented slaves, including Nashville. Slaves build railroads and roads, usually on contract with owners, driving down wages for non-slaves. And runaway slave ads show that many were skilled workers – blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers and even “engineers.”

Coffles were groups of slaves chained together and marched from one place to another by traders or white owners who bought them in another state and brought them to Tennessee. Curiously, state law for a period of time prohibited import of slaves from other states for sale within the state but allowed Tennesseans to journey to another state, buy them and then bring them to Tennessee in a coffle.

It is suggested that the law was widely ignored by traders, including Nathan Bedford Forrest (who is also said to have been less abusive to slaves than some other traders of the day). Forrest, who gave up slave trading to become a Confederate cavalry general. Monuments erected to him have recently become a subject of current controversy.

A “fancy girl,” Carey writes, “was a physically attractive slave, usually multiracial, who was sold to be a concubine.” There were “fancy boys,” too.

A recommended read for Tennessee history buffs. has it listed at $34.95 in hardback and $10.95 in paperback. Both figures, by the way, are less than the rewards offered for capturing most of the runaway slaves listed in ads from the early 1800s.

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