Archaeologists survey Nashville development site for Civil War fort, African-American graves

Field technicians Chandler Burchfield, left, and Cristina Oliveira use ground penetrating radar in the parking lot of Greer Stadium, a former minor-league baseball park, in Nashville, Tenn. Archaeologists are surveying the stadium for hints of unmarked graves of slaves and free black men who died building Fort Negley next door. Nashville is considering plans to demolish the stadium for housing, entertainment and a park. Historical groups want the land preserved as park space. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Archaeologists are rolling high-powered radar gear through the thick outfield weeds and empty parking lots of an abandoned Nashville baseball stadium, looking for hints of unmarked graves of slaves and free black men who died building the war-battered fort next door.

The findings could prove pivotal for Fort Negley, one of the most significant Civil War sites for African-Americans and the focus of the latest clash between historic preservation and growth in a city with a complicated racial past.

The booming capital, which adds about 100 residents a day, is considering plans to demolish the ballpark for 21 acres of housing, shops, space for artists and musicians, and a park.

Dilapidated Greer Stadium, a minor-league baseball park from 1978 until 2014, sits where the fort’s black laborers toiled, lived and died a century and a half ago, and where 50 to 800 workers are thought to be buried. But there’s little in the written record about how they were laid to rest.

Historical groups, the NAACP and park-space advocates think officials should reject the lease for private development on city land, and reconnect it to the fort as park space.

In a petition to block development and protect the fort, built for Union troops occupying Nashville, the preservation advocacy group Friends of Fort Negley Inc. has invoked a Tennessee law previously criticized for making it tougher to remove Confederate monuments.

“If we allow development to the point that the park itself becomes nothing more than a dog park for 300 homes out here, then we have truly failed this community,” said Robert Hicks, an author who helped preserve a Civil War battlefield in nearby Franklin, Tennessee.

Famed music producer T Bone Burnett and developer Bert Mathews support the housing and entertainment overhaul with Mayor Megan Barry’s backing. They want to revitalize land that was left to languish after the baseball team moved to a new ballpark near downtown.

The Cloud Hill plan proposes 300 residential units, greenways, creative space, and retail offerings. It also includes some affordable housing in a red-hot market, and promises to preserve the fort and its picturesque views.

“Metro and the Cloud Hill Partnership are absolutely committed to preserving historic Fort Negley Park while improving the adjacent Greer Stadium parcel to create active park space, greenways, and housing options for working families in Nashville,” said Barry’s spokesman, Sean Braisted.

Burnett calls any contention that he wants to put condos on African-American graves a “damned lie.”

Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, contracted by the city for up to $55,000, won’t dig unless the radar suggests a grave shaft or burial pit lies beneath. They plan to file a report with recommendations by December.

“The primary thing is: Are there human remains present still?” said Virgil “Duke” Beasley, the group’s archaeological mentor.

After Confederate forces surrendered to Union soldiers in Nashville in 1862, the Union forced more than 2,700 runaway slaves and freed black people to help build Fort Negley. Men, women and children, from 13 to 55 years old, were taken from their homes and churches and only paid $13,000 of the $85,000 promised. One in four died, said Norm Hill, former Tennessee Historical Commission chairman.

Laborers were housed in a “contraband camp” at the fort’s base. During a raid, they were denied weapons but fought with shovels, picks and axes to help drive the Confederates away.

Many laborers joined the newly formed United States Colored Troops. Nashville’s African-American population nearly tripled during the war, from 4,000 in 1860 to more than 11,000 by 1865.

With little in the written record, other signs point to African-American burials there, said Zada Law, director of Middle Tennessee State University’s Geospatial Research Center. Slaves were buried outside the walls of many Tennessee cemeteries, and there was a Catholic cemetery at the base of the hill before the Civil War, Law said.

If workers died during the 1862 late-summer heat, it might have been expedient to bury them in the built-up soil nearby, she said.

The fort deteriorated over the years. The Works Progress Administration rebuilt it in 1936 and it reopened in 1938, but the fort fell into disrepair again. The Ku Klux Klan rallied there in the Jim Crow years, and segregated softball fields were later built nearby, Hicks said. Greer Stadium was built in the late 1970s.

The conflict became personal for Eleanor Fleming this summer, after Fort Negley’s Twitter page began tweeting laborers’ names. When Fleming saw the names Ruffin and Egbert Bright, her aunt confirmed that two ancestors worked on the fort.

Fleming, now living in Washington, D.C., knew the two were enslaved outside Nashville, not far from where her family still lives. She knows one wasn’t buried near the fort. She’s not sure about the other. Regardless, she said developing the land doesn’t seem right.

“You work, die in what had to have been the worst of conditions, and for what?” she said. “I’m not sure that a condo is how I’d like for things to end for me.”