Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series during Black History Month about the impact Black people have made on the community of Maury County.
When strolling through downtown Columbia, reminders of the city’s rich Black history is marked along the way, thanks to historical markers erected through the hard work and dedication of the African American Heritage Society of Maury County.
The society is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year in preserving Black history from installing historic markers at key structures, honoring pivotal moments, to lecture series and educational partnerships.
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Significant historic placeholders include history etched in stone on markers installed at places such as the A.J Morton Funeral Home, a place where prominent Black business owners strategized during the race uprising of 1946; the war memorial displayed outside the courthouse with names of U.S. Colored Troops soldiers and a marker at one of the first Black-owned banks Freedmen’s Savings Bank & Trust Company in downtown Columbia.
The society has installed five historic markers around the county and is working on more.
The society officially organized on January 28, 2012, soon becoming a nonprofit.
The catalyst of the formation of the AAHS of Maury County began when county historian McClellan, a native of Theta, went on a quest to find information about her great great great grandmother, who was also born and raised in the community of Theta. During her research, she discovered that Maury County had not kept a historical record of African American deaths as far back as 1908.
Her discovery led to her book, “Gone But Not Forgotten: African American Cemeteries and 1908-1930 Death Records of Maury County, Tennessee,” which includes a compilation of the dates of death and location of cemetery burials of hundreds of Black residents in Maury County.
Knowing that Maury County needed an organization to continue to uncover and preserve the history of the Black community and their accomplishments, McClellan set out to form the first AAHS of Maury County in 2012. She now serves as president of the society.
“It concerned me that most African American history discussions included slave history and the atrocities, rather than the men and women, who were a part of building communities,” McClellan said.
McClellan has spoken and researched extensively on the Black doctors, soldiers, lawyers, teachers, nurses and writers who helped to shape Maury County, such as the acclaimed Rosenwald schools, the first African American hospital in operation for 30 years and the businesses that once comprised “the Bottom” on East 8th Street, creating a bustling district of enterprise and entertainment.
“It’s important to tell the whole story of African American history,” she said. “It’s important to tell about African Americans who made a way for themselves and helped build the community. They wanted to get their children educated, start businesses and excel.”
Accomplishments of the AAHS include comprehensive lecture series, the installation of historic markers, an informational calendar series and many recognitions.
Since 2013, the society has held over 30 lecture series to educate the community about Black history, including talks delivered by authors, historians and professors, covering such topics as the civil war, the great migration, education and religion.
In 2016, the society developed a traveling history exhibit “Path to Freedom” that has been displayed at private schools and public libraries in six counties in Middle Tennessee.
The running calendar series since 2015 has spotlighted “little known African American history facts” as a tool to document significant historic people and events in Maury County.
Over the years, the society has received several preservation awards and the board of directors was invited to speak at the National Council on Public History Conference in 2015 attended by more than 800 archivists, educators, historians and students from across the nation.
In 2013 and 2015, the collective names of 88 U.S. Colored Troops soldiers were added to the Maury County War Memorial located on the courthouse grounds on Public Square with a community unveiling.
In 2014, a historical marker was placed at the College Hill School on Bridge Street, which is now Horace O. Porter School. The College Hill School, established 1881, was the first school for Black students in Maury County.
In 2015, a historical marker was placed at the site of the Maury County Colored Hospital on East 7th Street, established in 1923, which operated for more than 30 years. The marker was funded by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
In 2016, a two-sided marker was installed at the A.J. Morton Funeral Home on East 8th Street, which was funded with a grant from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
A historic maker was also installed at Freedmen’s Savings Bank and Trust site on 6th Street in Columbia.
In 2021, the society unveiled a historic marker, honoring Rev. Edmund Kelly, the first African American ordained evangelist in Tennessee, as well as celebrating Mt. Lebanon Missionary Baptist Church’s 178th anniversary.
The society was presented with such awards as the 2012 Historic Preservation Award, 2015 Organization Past Year Award and the Tennessee Historical Commission Certificate of Merit, 2016.
The society has also worked in partnership with Middle Tennessee State University on history projects and educational materials and has been featured in and contributed to various media publications over the years.
The society is continuing its mission of preservation through installing markers at sites significant to Black history and conducting educational programs.
“I am excited about the possibilities for the future of the society in showcasing even more of the community’s African American history,” McClellan said.
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