Belle Meade Plantation
I have vivid memories living in Virginia as a little girl. We lived there for several years when my father, a Naval officer, was stationed in Washington, D.C. It's also where my parents adopted my baby brother. I remember the nursery school I attended with horses in the pastures next to our playground, the church we attended with it’s tall white, wooden steeple that housed my favorite kitchen to play with in Sunday School, where my ballet lessons were, and our traditional-style, red brick home that sat up on a hill. I also remember seeing chain gangs of men wearing black and white striped clothing, shackled together with an armed guard on horseback holding a rifle while watching over them as they worked on the side of the road. I remember cherry blossoms in bloom in Washington, D.C., and all the monuments my parents took me to and how I was terrified of the Natural History Museum. One time, while my mother and I were shopping in Washington, D.C., we saw the President, then President Eisenhower. He was sitting in the backseat of his black Cadillac, and as he looked out his window, he smiled and waved at us.
Virginia homes, that I remember, were mostly red brick. I thought of these things as my cousin’s wife and now my good friend, drove me through Brentwood and Belle Meade, Tennessee, on our way to tour the popular tourist attraction, the Belle Meade Plantation. The homes along the densely tree covered and gently, winding road were neatly kept. Many were large, stately homes that stood proud, like the people themselves. And, just like the homes I remembered in Virginia, most were red brick. As a southern California girl, I find brick to be an oddity in my earthquake world, but I loved seeing them. They are so elegant looking and certainly brought familiar memories of my early years living in Virginia.
One thing that stood out for me on our morning drive, was seeing the old, rustic Civil War fences along the side of the road. Some were stone walls, still kept, still standing, sacredly preserved. Beside them, sometimes, were graves from all of the fighting that went on in and around Nashville. Street names were historic too. My cousin’s wife knew her history, so I was able to glean from her some sense of what my ancestors experienced during the war. I found myself wondering what it must’ve been like for them. I have a photo from ancestry.com of one of my third great-grandparents who lived during the Civil War. They looked like they lived a hard life. I’m quite sure they did. They were farmers, part of the large agrarian culture in the south, and it was tough for them. I have another set of grandparents who were much more well off. They owned a large portion of land which now resides in downtown Nashville. I’ve been fortunate through ancestry.com finding a distant cousin who had a copy of both of their Last Will and Testaments, dated right before the Civil War began. Sadly, they owned slaves. Not to justify it of course, but it was the way of the world at that time in Nashville. If you owned land, you needed help to produce crops to make ends meet. The slaves were all mentioned by name in both of the wills. It seems that they were attached to family members and they wished them all to stay together. It was hard to digest when I first saw this, realizing I now knew I had ancestors that took part in this horrid part of American history. I can only hope my relatives treated them with dignity for the times they lived in.
We arrived at the historic, well preserved, Belle Meade Plantation, with it’s lush green land and huge trees. It had not been a farming plantation, but was instead used for enterprises such as a cotton gin, blacksmith shop and for boarding and breeding horses. I was fascinated to learn that Belle Meade had an illustrious history with it’s bloodline of race horses that continues to dominate the field today. It also enslaved 136 people which all came to an abrupt halt when the Civil War began in 1861. After the war, 72 slaves decided to stay on and work for the family, which gives me hope they might’ve been treated more fairly and with some dignity perhaps more than others. Seeing this plantation made me think of my family's heritage and what type of home the Simpkins' family had in Nashville. I looked forward to doing some more genealogy work some day to dig around and find out more about my ancestors who left a good trace with their Last Will and Testament.
My cousin’s wife, her teenage daughter and I took the house tour. I was amazed we could still see bullet holes on the mansion’s columns that occurred during the Civil War. I don’t know much, but I do remember my birth mother telling me our ancestors did indeed fight in the Confederate Army. I imagine my father’s family did too, as they were from Alabama. It’s such a different world and culture for me. Since I wasn’t raised in the south, I only know it’s history and culture from books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, but I realize hearing from my cousin and his wife, that the people who lived here after the war, both white and black, had a very difficult time emotionally and economically that still haunts some of their descendants to this day.
It’s still surreal to me, knowing my family lineage has such deep roots in Nashville and probably in Alabama as well. I always suspected this from the first time I saw my birth name, Loretta Annette Stewart. But to finally be here, to smell the southern woodsy air, and see the old trees and hills that could surely tell a good tale, I was thrilled to be where my family has lived for over two hundred years. A feeling that's hard to put into words…