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VOL. 37 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 20, 2013
Groundbreaking slavery exhibit set for Tennessee State Museum
A groundbreaking exhibit about the slaves and slaveholders who worked and resided at a distinctive plantation in Tennessee will open next year at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.
The exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation, looks at the lives of both the enslaved African Americans and their white owners on the 13,000 acre plantation in Robertson County, Tennessee. The exhibition, which is free to the public, will open Feb. 11 and close Aug. 31, 2014.
Through first and third person accounts, the exhibit will reconstruct the lives of several enslaved people, giving them names, faces, and the details of what happened to them before, during, and after the Civil War.
Among the slaves profiled in the exhibit is Jenny Blow Washington. The founder of Wessyngton Plantation, Joseph Washington, purchased 10-year-old Jenny and her sister from a Virginia planter in 1802. The sisters traveled to Wessyngton Plantation in Tennessee with Washington, never to see their mother again. Although slaves could not legally marry, Jenny had a lifelong relationship with a slave named Godfrey Washington and gave birth to at least nine children. Jenny and her family performed the chores involved with maintaining the large Washington house. Her known descendants number in the thousands.
“Most museum exhibits cannot provide an in-depth look at individual enslaved people because there is little information available,” according to Lois Riggins Ezzell, the museum’s executive director. “But because of fortunate circumstances of record-keeping and photography by the Wessyngton owners and a wealth of research and oral history by one of the slave descendants, we are able to bring these otherwise forgotten people to life.”
The plantation was established in 1796 by Joseph Washington, who moved to Tennessee from Virginia, and was later inherited by his son, George A. Washington.
The Washingtons, through their business dealings, became incredibly wealthy, owning not only Wessyngton but also property and slaves in Kentucky. Wessyngton was one of the largest plantations in Tennessee in 1860 and the largest producer of tobacco in the U.S. In 1860, the Washingtons were one of the wealthiest families in Tennessee.
The Washingtons, with two exceptions, never sold their slaves, and by 1860 owned 274.
Slave families at Wessyngton had three to five generations living together, remarkable in a system that often separated enslaved families, including selling children away from their parents.
At the end of the exhibit, a section called “Legacies” will trace what happened to several of the Wessyngton slaves after the Civil War into the 20th century.