I was born in Trinidad, educated in England, and moved to Nashville in 2002 to teach history at Vanderbilt. My research focuses on African Americans in the Atlantic world of the 19th century. Wherever I live, I also try to do a bit of research into local history.
My daily drive to work takes me past Montgomery Bell Academy, which piqued my interest about the man for whom the school was named. My interest was aroused further when I ran across an old newspaper item about Montgomery Bell freeing his slaves and sending them to Liberia on the west coast of Africa. When I asked a local librarian why Bell had done such a thing, I was met with a knowing look, a twinkle in the eye, and the information that Bell was a bachelor. The inference was clear: Bachelors do things with women over whom they have command.
A historian of Dickson County, Tenn., where most of Bell’s forges and furnaces were located, wrote of Bell: “He was a ruthless slave driver who made hard bargains … who became wealthy exploiting Dickson County and who may even have had illegitimate white and black children, but who in later years became imbued with a philanthropic spirit and emancipated slaves and gave money for the establishment of a school for boys.”
Much is implied here, but much is left unsaid. How does someone who has been eagerly going about exploiting his slaves decide to free them?
By the time Bell made the decision to send his slaves to Liberia in the early 1850s, he had become Tennessee’s most prominent ironmaster. Born in Chester County, Pa., in 1769, he moved first to Kentucky and then to Tennessee, where in 1804 he purchased a furnace from James Robertson, the founder of Nashville. The 1850 slave schedules record that Bell owned 310 slaves, making him possibly the largest slaveholder in the state.
In a society in which racism flourished, any slaveholder who was partial to freeing his slaves faced the problem of where to settle them once they were freed. Most Southern states made it impossible for freed slaves to remain in those states unless they got special dispensation from the legislature.
Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society in 1822 as a place to settle freed slaves and free blacks who no longer wished to live in the United States. The society had a schizophrenic history and character. On the one hand it saw itself as
an anti-slavery organization; on the other it was an organization that got rid of free blacks, the most dangerous people within a slave society. Many state societies, including those of Pennsylvania and Maryland, created their own settlements of freed slaves along the coast of Liberia, with the idea of keeping people from a particular area together.
The American Colonization Society relied on support from local chapters. Funds to cover the costs of passage and support were to be provided by the slaveholder. If no funds were available, the clerk of court had to hire out the slave until enough money was raised to send the slave to Liberia—an interesting emancipation concept.
By 1853 when Bell made the decision to send his slaves to Liberia, the Tennessee Colonization Society, founded in 1829, was in desperate financial straits. As a result, Bell and others who wished to send their slaves to Liberia would have to foot much of the bill, and the bill was pretty steep. It was estimated it would cost $60—in 1850 money—to outfit and support each emigrant for six months.
The society’s Tennessee agent wrote to the national office in Washington, D.C., informing them that Montgomery Bell had 200 servants—documents of the era rarely use the term “slaves”—whom he wished to settle in Liberia. One hundred of them were direct descendants of James Worley, a slave for whom Bell had named one of his forges in Dickson County. Roughly 80 were mechanics who had built sawmills, gristmills and furnaces. Bell’s slaves were skilled artisans, the cream of the crop. They blasted rock through tunnels, and he entrusted much of his business to them.
The letters I have come across bearing Bell’s signature are clearly not written by him, but his correspondence suggests he had been mulling over the possibility of freeing his slaves for some time. Under Tennessee law he would have to send them out of the country. It seems likely that Bell grew increasingly anxious—a word that crops up in all of the letters—that his death would lead to an unseemly scramble. Friends spoke about signs of physical infirmity and mental feebleness. His confidante Thomas Cross said Bell anticipated trouble from what he described as his “collateral heirs” should he die before his slaves were free.
Those who knew Bell well described him as a man of peculiar temperament who wrote his will, it was said, and disposed of his servants—only to undo all that he had done. Bell evidently wrote wills frequently. One can envision him watching to see the reaction of his family, and then changing his will yet again. Perhaps at age 85 with no direct descendants to look after, it was one of life’s joys.
In any case, Bell’s decision came during a time when there was a spike of interest in colonization, with inquiries from Tennessee towns like McMinnville and Murfreesboro. The most significant of them came from William Kennedy, a slaveholder from Columbia, Tenn., who sent a first group of his slaves to Liberia in December 1852, sailing from New Orleans. A second group of Kennedy’s slaves was to follow in the spring.
Bell initially planned to send 70 or 80 of his servants to Liberia in two separate groups. He proposed to cover half the cost to outfit them and get them to the ship if the American Colonization Society agreed to cover other expenses. Not uncharacteristically, Bell made a number of additional demands. He wanted to know if he could buy 2,000 acres of land rich in iron ore on which to settle the emigrants. When it appeared that was not possible, he insisted his company be settled with those of Kennedy’s where there were known deposits of iron ore. The society replied that only the government of Liberia could grant such a request but promised to approach the government.
Knowing that many of Kennedy’s company had died on the last emigrant ship to leave the port the previous December, Bell insisted his company not ship out through New Orleans. His and Kennedy’s groups would join the company in Savannah, Ga. The enterprise was to be headed by Thomas Scott, the patriarch of the family, who was rumored to have helped produce the cannonballs used by Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans.
These trips tried the souls of the emigrants. There was the cross-country trip to the ship from Middle Tennessee to Savannah in the period before rails. On this and other trips, the society hired an agent to assist and protect the former slaves, who usually took too much baggage with them. Along the way there were people willing to exploit the situation, and many of them had to be paid off. The voyage took an average of 40 days and, as one local person said, it was “hotter than hell.”
As is the case with most of the emigrants to Liberia, little is known about the first company of Bell’s slaves who landed in 1854. Within six months they sent back to Bell a bar of iron, which suggested the land had rich deposits of iron ore. Within weeks of the departure of the first company of 38 emigrants, friends of Bell were reporting to the society that he was ready to send out a second company. The group that left in May 1854 comprised 49 emigrants.
Kennedy reported that Bell planned to offer an additional 200 “iron men,” as they were called, to the society if they could join early expeditions and if the Liberian government would grant additional land.
The prospects seemed good. One report declared that an analysis had found the land where Bell’s former slaves settled boasted the best and richest iron ore in the world.
But among Bell’s family there was widespread suspicion that he was not only losing his marbles but frittering away his assets in a misguided scheme. And family members were not the only persons who had other ideas.
Bell asked a trusted nephew, George Bain, to accompany the third group.
Bell sent a pair of trusted slaves, a man named Joe Hall and another called Jim Burrus, to give another nephew, James L. Bell, an envelope stuffed with $3,500. The money evidently was to be sent to Thomas Scott, leader of the first expedition, to help pay for establishment of iron forges and to help see the emigrants who had already gone
out through the hardships of their first settlement.
Joe Hall and Jim Burrus came up with an ingenious scheme. They sent half the money to Thomas Scott and used the other half to make their way to freedom in Ohio.
I found this advertisement for Burrus and Hall in the local newspaper:
Run away from the subscriber about 21st of August
Joe is a black Negro, 24 years old, very stout but not fleshy. Weighs about 180 pounds. Has a scar on one of his cheekbones caused by a burn. Can read and write.
Jim is a copper-colored Negro with a peculiar yellowness about the eyes, about 60 years old. About 5 feet 9 and weighs about 175 pounds.
They have a large amount of money with them in notes on the Bank of Tennessee.
They are both keen, shrewd Negroes, possibly have forged free papers with them, and may have had assistance from a white man.
Always, there’s a white man lurking in the background, as if, faced with $3,500, these guys couldn’t look out for themselves. The Bank of Tennessee offered an award of $300, an amazing amount of money at the time.
Plans for a third company, at any rate, fell apart on April 1, 1855, when Bell died. In the end I am left unsure of Bell’s motives. Bell’s friend Kennedy may have reflected his views when he described colonization as “the grandest benevolent enterprise of its time that was good for the Negro and even better for the white man.” Friends spoke of Bell’s long desire to free a people to whom he was deeply attached. The cynic wonders why it took so long.
There’s no evidence that Bell came to his decision because many of those he freed were his offspring. To put it indelicately, I get the impression that Bell wanted to give his family the old digit. He was clearly being difficult, and his “collateral heirs” were not treated kindly.
But his last will—really last will—insisted that the executors sell his slaves to “good masters” and that families not be separated.
Years later I came across the following notice in a Missouri newspaper:
The undersigned receivers of Montgomery Bell will offer in Valley Forge in Dickson County 140 Negroes consisting of men, women and children, many of them skilled in every department of the iron business, forgement keepers, and the majority of women and children excellent farm hands. Said slaves will be sold on 12 months’ credit and as families as far as practical.
Montgomery Bell’s heirs, in the end, got hold of some of his slaves, though the period of slavery by then was drawing to an end. Abraham Lincoln proposed sending free blacks elsewhere, though not necessarily to Liberia. Lincoln viewed colonization as a way of softening the conflict between Southerners and Northerners, and stayed with the idea through the middle of the Civil War.
Black Americans, however, were not partial to the idea of colonization. The United States was their country. They’d fought and died for it. Lincoln was stunned by how opposed black Americans were to colonization.
America’s connection with Liberia remained strong, nonetheless. Iron ore would become Liberia’s most important asset until the founding of the rubber industry in the 20th century.
In the end we are left with as many questions as answers regarding Montgomery Bell’s decision to send his slaves to Liberia. Several years ago when a librarian at the Nashville Archives showed me a copy of Montgomery Bell’s will, one phrase stood out. The will stipulated a bequest to open a school for “indigent boys.”
Since then, every time I drive by Montgomery Bell Academy with its manicured lawns and imposing iron gates behind which generations of young gentlemen have prepared for academic careers at Vanderbilt and elsewhere, I have visions of poor indigent lads trying to cross Harding Road. Clearly something went awry with that part of Montgomery Bell’s plan, too.
The lesson we are left with, perhaps, is that we should give away our riches before we grow old.
Editor’s Note: This article has been adapted from a lecture given by Richard Blackett, the Andrew Jackson Professor of History, as part of the Thinking Out of the (Lunch) Box series last year. A bit of trivia for Vanderbilt history buffs: Montgomery Bell Academy originated in 1867 as part of the old University of Nashville, which became Peabody Normal College in 1888—later to become George Peabody College for Teachers and, in 1979, Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.
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