The Builders

I don’t know that I have ever mentioned what I do for a living. I am a genealogist. That is my passion. But my job is Director of African and African American History with the Battle of Franklin Trust (BOFT.) I work for an organization dedicated to telling a full truthful version of history. The American Civil War was the most impactful event in our shared history. From the founding every event lead to the start of the Civil War, and everything that has happened since the Civil War, has happened because of the Civil War. The contribution of African Americans on society before, during and every day since the Civil War has been diminished. Daily, I research the individuals, all of the individuals, whose personal stories add humanity and depth to our interpretation. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. Then there are moments when my personal research and my professional research collide.

The BOFT manages three historic homes: Carnton, Carter House and Rippavilla. All three of these homes witnessed the devastating impact of both slavery and war. Rippavilla, is the newest site under BOFT’s purview and requiring the most research currently. Nathaniel and Susan McKissack Cheairs owned Rippavilla and seventy-five human beings. Both of them inheriting slaves from their parents upon their deaths. Legal documents, listing names, ages, family units and sometimes skills giving me, as a researcher, clues to discovering the personal stories of the enslaved at Rippavilla. Susan’s father, William McKissack, owned one hundred and twenty-one slaves at his death in 1855. Many of his slaves were skilled craftsmen: carpenters, mechanics, tinners, brick masons, etc.. Just ten years later many of these slaves were free and they met freedom with skills. Descendants of McKissack slaves continued as builders and established McKissack & McKissack Architects in the early 20th Century. HOW do the McKissacks connect to Josie you ask? McKissack & McKissack built Hubbard House!

Hubbard House was the last building being constructed on the Meharry campus and it was still under construction when Josie died in March 1921. It was a retirement gift for Dr. George Hubbard from Meharry Alumni, to thank him for so many years service to the school. Hubbard House is currently the only remaining Meharry building still standing on the original South Nashville campus. Coming across this connection to the McKissacks and Josie has gotten me fired up to do something about this dying piece of history. It’s always been in the back of my mind “do something.” But what? Hubbard House has unique potential to interpret a lost story for this South Nashville neighborhood. It’s close to the Nashville City Cemetery and down town attractions, perfect for visitors. The house is even more unique because of its connection to McKissack & McKissack.

The McKissack Construction story starts with Moses McKissack. Moses was born a slave in 1790 in North Carolina. He was likely a slave of Charles Sallard before being gifted to Sallard’s daughter Rebecca Sallard McKissack, wife of William McKissack. The McKissacks migrated to Maury County, TN in 1837. William owned property in Giles and Maury and maintained properties in both counties. When William died in 1855 he left no will, but in 1856 there was an inventory of his human property taken. His slaves were separated into six lots and distributed to his children. Moses, age 66, Miriam Sr., 55, Gabriel, 16, Miriam Jr., 9, Sarah, 7 and Anna, 5 were listed in “lot no 3” and given to William’s daughter Lucy and her husband William Parham. Moses must not have been in the best of health by this time, as his value was listed as $150.00, while another man, Dick, of a similar age was valued at $500.00.

When our country was entrenched in war many McKissack slaves escaped and joined the U.S. Army. Thomas McKissack, son of Moses and Miriam was one of those soldiers. Thomas mustered into Co E of the 12th US Colored Infantry and fought for his freedom. After the war, Thomas was a gardener and lived in Nashville. Moses and Miriam had passed away by the enumeration of the 1870 Federal Census. Their youngest daughter Anna, only five in 1856, was living with her brother Gabriel by this time. Gabriel was himself, a skilled carpenter and the next in our McKissack story. He married Dolly Maxwell in 1869 and together they had twelve children. Gabriel was able to use his talent as a carpenter to make enough money to educate his children and own his own house. His sons Gabriel Moses III and Calvin were the “McKissacks” of the original McKissack & McKissack. They were the builders.

Gabriel and Dolly McKissack and several of their sons.

The McKissacks helped build the literal foundations, the physical structures; the buildings in which Black students were educated, the buildings they prayed in and the buildings they lived in. These buildings are important. These are the structures that nurtured the next generation, the Civil Rights generation. I was visiting Hubbard House one day a couple years ago, walking Josie’s streets. I struck up a conversation with the woman who lived next door. I asked her what she knew about the house and she said she thought it was part of “an old school or something.” It makes me profoundly sad that no one who lives on her street knows Josie’s name. It makes me equally as sad that Hubbard House is such a huge physical presence, but its story? As absent as Josie’s. Hubbard House isn’t the most important building in Nashville. It’s not the most important piece of Black History, but it is a piece. Saving a piece of physical history would give us the opportunity to interpret stories like Josie’s and the McKissacks. To teach. To educate. To learn.

Hubbard House

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