African American News and Genealogy

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

'Slave driver' of a businessman helped send blacks to Africa

You mentioned Montgomery Bell. I know there is a private school as well as a state park named for him. Could you tell who he was and what he meant to Nashville/Middle Tennessee? — Brian Gentry, Nashville. Montgomery Bell remains something of a "man of mystery," as Nashville Banner writer Ed Huddleston characterized him in a 10-part newspaper profile published in 1955, a century after his April 1, 1855, death at age 86. Arriving here in 1802 from Lexington, Ky., the Pennsylvania native became one of Middle Tennessee's largest slaveholders. He bought Nashville founder James Robertson's interest in the Cumberland Iron Works. His various iron production facilities in Dickson, Cheatham and Montgomery counties, worked by many of his 300-400 slaves in addition to hired white immigrants, made him successful and wealthy. The grandest home of his three was in Brentwood. Some of his production went into cannonballs sold to the U.S. Army and reportedly used by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. He didn't hesitate to "get the greatest amount of labor from the slave even if the whip was necessary" at his forges and furnaces, historian Robert E. Corlew wrote in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. But in his later life, after his iron manufacturing declined in the 1840s, he began to favor emancipation. Bell was among Tennessee's most prominent supporters of a national movement to send slaves to Africa to start a colony where they might prosper in freedom. He was willing to pay their transportation and give them six months of provisions to help establish what he hoped could be their own ironworks in Liberia, on the western coast. Nashville tradition has it that his freed slaves who agreed to the plan assembled on the steps of the still-standing Downtown Presbyterian Church (then First Presbyterian, dedicated Easter Sunday 1851) on Church Street to leave by riverboat on the first leg of their journey, Huddleston wrote. The church pastor was a friend of Bell. An agent for the colonization effort had spoken during a meeting at the church in 1831, Nashville historian Bobby L. Lovett wrote. Among the two groups Bell sent, 38 in December 1853 and 50 more in May 1854, was a slave named Worley. Worley, named Elijah or James in varying accounts, was so talented in iron production and so trusted by Bell that his owner named a Dickson County furnace and mine for him and relied heavily on his business advice. Full Story:


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