This morning I went to the Beersheba Springs Assembly for the Posse Retreat, which had as its focus “Crime and Punishment.” This was a great event, with many good conversations, impressive facilitating, lots to laugh and think about. After lunch, I made my way home (though vowing that next year I’d attend the entire weekend ), but first stopped off at the Armfield Cemetery, just down the road from Assembly.
The graveyard dates to 1871 and, on a sunny February afternoon, the old trees, leaf litter, and ironwork gates give the place a certain Victorian Gothic charm. Across the street are modest, old-fashioned homes which, being built on the bluff, have a commanding view off the plateau into the Savage Gulf State Park. The most prominent monument in the cemetery is that for John Armfield, below.
I have a profound antipathy for Armfield who, with Isaac Franklin, ran a successful slave-trading operation. “With headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, Franklin and Armfield conducted gangs of chained and shackled slaves down the Natchez Trace and sold them in the slave pen on the edge of that Mississippi town,” writes Herschel Gower in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. “The arduous journey took seven or eight weeks, but wealthy cotton planters paid Franklin and Armfield well for their traffic in African flesh. Armfield’s biographer, Isabel Howell, estimated that the pair averaged sales of twelve hundred slaves per year for every year from 1828 to 1835.”
In the 1850s, Armfield– now rich from slave-trading and enjoying his retirement– began buying up property in Beersheba Springs. Many of the cottages he built at that time are still to be seen in the town. He was close with Bishops Otey and Polk, who owned summer homes in Beersheba, and helped to convince them to build the University of the South on the Cumberland Plateau.
In this same period, as James L. Nicholson writes in his Tennessee County History Series: Grundy County, “to show his endorsement and in a typical display of his munificence, [Armfield] pledged $25,000 a year during his lifetime to the university.” As Tanner Potts has discovered in his well-researched slideshow on this topic for Sewanee’s Roberson Project, Armfield’s gift to the University was not exactly $25K:
On January 4, 1859, John Armfield pledged 25 installments of $1,000 per year for the construction and upkeep of the first buildings of the University of the South. Armfield’s subscription, pictured below, stipulates that the college must be built near Beersheba Springs and must be of the “first class institutions of learning in the United States.” Armfield’s gift was erroneously reported by the Republican Banner and Nashville Whig as $25,000 per year for the duration of his life. While the actual gift fell short of its myth, the pledge launched the construction of the university shortly after its incorporation.
Whatever the cash value of his support, his name survives on the University’s Domain today as Armfield Bluff.
At lunchtime at the retreat, I had spoken with one of my former students, Gabby, who knows all about the biography of Armfield and Beersheba’s early history. It’s ironic, we agreed, that the retreat, where so much great work is done to confront ingrained issues of institutional racism, should be held here. “But it makes sense, too,” she said. “It’s a sort of re-claiming.”
She’s right, of course, though I wonder if it’s entirely true. As I drove back to Sewanee, it happened that I was listening to a podcast from Radio Diaries on George Wallace’s famous segregation speech (re-broadcast from 2012 in connection with the release of “Selma”). In later years, Wallace would be deeply regretful of his position, and he even went on an “apology tour” of Alabama. Among the people he apologized to was John Lewis, one of the Selma marchers who is now a well-known Congressman from Georgia:
“And I remember the occasion so well,” Lewis says. “It was like someone confessing to their priest or to a minister. He wanted people to forgive him. He said to me, ‘I never hated anybody; I never hated any black people.’
“He said, ‘Mr. Lewis, I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘Well, governor, I accept your apology.’ ” . . .
“Does it hurt me? No,” Lewis says. “In the end, I think George Wallace was one of the signs on this long journey towards the creation of a better America, toward the creation of a more perfect union. It was just one of the stumbling blocks along the way.”
Postscript, Feb. 7. My friend, David Haskell, sends along a link to a blog called “US Slave” which has images of Franklin and Armfield’s slave-trading business: