NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – A developer has unearthed human remains that may be two centuries old while digging to lay the foundation for a new Nashville project not far from a Civil War fort and a Civil War cemetery year 1822.
For Nashville, the discovery marks the recent intersection of times of economic prosperity and the city’s rich and sometimes troubled history — where new amenities arise on or near lands where people long ago settled, fought, or toiled, then died, and were buried, often with little record of their final resting place.
In a court filing earlier this month, AJ Capital Management noted that the discovery in the neighborhood near Fort Negley took place while the company was working on its mixed-use Nashville Warehouse Co. development, which will include apartments and commercial premises.
The fort, built for the Union by runaway slaves and freedman blacks, has in recent years become a focal point on Nashville’s long journey from a hub of the old Confederacy to a vibrant, modern city trying to cope with rapid growth to become. It is about half a mile from the partially completed apartment building project and is flanked by a giant guitar sign and construction crane in a rapidly developing area of shops, bars and restaurants.
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The company is seeking permission from a Nashville law firm judge to move the remains, which include skeletal pieces and thin wood fragments believed to be from coffins, to the adjacent 200-year-old Nashville City Cemetery.
An archaeologist hired by the company wrote that her team uncovered remains in May and again in June, and described them as non-Native American in origin and “estimated to date to the early 19th century,” possibly representing them before the Civil War.
The archaeologist wrote that they are likely “isolated burials and not a more extensive cemetery distribution,” and said the remains were found in only two of 53 4-by-6-foot excavations conducted to work on the foundation. Both were found about 15 feet underground, plus or minus a few meters. State archeology officials, local police and the county medical officer’s office have been notified.
A portion of each burial and the remains were not uncovered and kept in place, the archaeologist wrote.
A spokesman for AJ Capital did not respond to a request for further comment.
Who these potentially centuries-old people might have been is an open question, according to Leotha Williams, a Tennessee State University professor specializing in African American, Civil War, and Reconstruction studies.
He wouldn’t rule out that the remains could be Native Americans, from early settlers, from Civil War soldiers, or from black workers at the fort — although that seems less likely since there was evidence of coffins, he said, and that was a degree of respect, which black people did not normally receive at the time.
Williams said he would “feel a lot more comfortable if maybe an academic unit would come in” to study the area where the remains were found. He described Nashville’s “spotty record” in sorting out the tensions between growth and historic preservation.
Williams said things are “changing a little bit,” but there’s still “a long way to go” when it comes to Nashville’s sensitivity to fringe history.
Most prominently, an attempt a few years ago to farm the area just off Fort Negley was so scrutinized that it was shelved because it later emerged that the lands below were likely burial grounds.
Adjacent to the fort, developer had planned to build a residential and entertainment complex where Nashville’s former minor league ballpark had stood, near the base of the fort.
After resistance mounted, the city ordered an archaeological survey that found in January 2018 that human remains are likely still buried there, possibly from enslaved people who built the fort.
That Plans were stopped, and instead the city envisioned a park commemorating the fort and the people who were forced to build it. The city demolished the ballpark and held public meetings over the overhaul. A final draft of a master plan is expected to be released this summer.
After Confederate forces surrendered to Union soldiers in Nashville in 1862, the Union took more than 2,700 runaway slaves and freed blacks from their homes and churches and forced them to work at the fort, where they lived in “smuggling camps.” Although they were promised money for their work, few were paid. About 600 to 800 of them died.
The fortress fell into disrepair over the years. The Works Progress Administration rebuilt it in 1936 and it reopened in 1938, but the fort again fell into disrepair. The Ku Klux Klan congregated there in Jim Crow’s years, and later separate softball fields were built nearby, according to the late author Robert Hicks.
The new settlement where the remains were found this year is farther from the fort, across from a series of railroad tracks from which the ballpark stood.
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