Daniel and Amanda’s Weblog

April 12, 2008

A Prominent Place

Filed under: Racism — theburts @ 12:36 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Tonight, Justin and I will be heading out to Montgomery Bell State Park, around 4,000 acres of protected area. I’m really excited, in part because I get to fish while we’re there. In checking out where we were going to stay, I came across this brief history lesson…

“The area’s iron ore industry is traceable to 1795 when Gen. James Robertson, a war hero and founder of Nashville, established the Cumberland Iron Works. Seven years later, Montgomery Bell came from Pennsylvania to operate the furnace for Robertson and, soon after, purchased it.

It provided the springboard for his Dickson County industrial empire. A farmer as well as an industrialist, Bell accomplished an enduring engineering marvel by using slave labor to cut a 290-foot tunnel through solid rock to divert the Harpeth River and shorten its channel by five miles, using the coursing water to power his forge. The tunnel is believed to be the oldest existing man-made tunnel in the nation.

This achievement earned Bell a prominent place in Tennessee history as the state’s first industrialist and capitalist and gained him renown as the South’s greatest ironmaster.”

(quoted from an article in the Dickson Herald)

Though I can marvel at the engineering genius, entrepreneurship, and hard work that went into making this tunnel and other things in this park, I also remember that slave labor was used to catapult this man into the position of renown and prominence. Listen again to this praise. “This achievement earned Bell a prominent place in Tennessee history as the state’s first industrialist and capitalist and gained him renown as the South’s greatest ironmaster.” A lot of words about his achievements, and then those two little words thrown in there…”slave labor.” Montgomery Bell is now known to most everyone in middle Tennessee. His name is attached to a prestigious prep school, bridges, the community of Belltown and a state park. Yet this lesser known fact of his use of slavery makes it difficult for me to remember him in such a positive light.

It’s true that slavery was more common in the days that he lived. Does that mean, though, that I should get over it and jump in with everyone else singing his praises for his achievements? Does Montgomery Bell deserve a prominent place? He certainly deserves to be noted in history as he accomplished so much. But, though slavery is wrong regardless, do I assume he intended well and treated his slaves as equals? Do I chalk it up to the fact that “everyone was doing it” and clear his name? A look at Wikipedia, which references a book entitled “A History of Dickson County” by Robert E. Corlew (relative, Josh?) clarified that for me.

“Bell was noted for sharp business practices; it was said of him that he would never pay a debt unless sued for it. He was also reputed to frequent prostitutes and to force his attentions upon female slaves. Earlier in his life he was also quick to whip male slaves for the slightest offense and was noted for the ferocity with which he would pursue those who ran away; later in his life he came to regard slavery as a great moral wrong and at the time of his death was in the process of freeing his slaves and arranging passage for many of them to Liberia. He seemingly had a particularly warm relationship with one slave, James Worley, whom he had acquired while in Lexington and who apparently had great ability as an engineer and who came to be regarded by Bell as more of a colleague and associate than a servant. Bell even named one of his iron works “Worley Furnace” in his honor, a very unusual honor for an African-American in the early 19th century. When, during a business trip to New Orleans, Bell was asked what he would take in trade for Worley, Bell reportedly replied, “I would not take all of New Orleans for him!”

We are constantly reminded of our tragic history with slavery in the south, of violence used to continue that system, and of ongoing racial prejudices and inequalities today (also a brief hint at the usury and degradation of women through the sex business, which continues to enslave so many women, men, and children long past 1865). Though I’m glad that he began to change his attitude of slavery, it seems he had already written a dark history in the lives of a few people. He also, evidently, was a very rich man who kept most of his money until his death in 1855 (he was a millionaire, or maybe even billionaire, of his day with a sum of more than $72,000 at his death). Fortunately he did spare a small percentage of that, and because he willed money for children to receive an education, Montgomery Bell Academy now exists. “Bell, always cognizant of the formal education that he had been deprived of, left at his death $20,000 toward “the education of children not less than ten nor more than fourteen years old who are not able to support and educate themselves and whose parents are not able to do so.” Unfortunately, now it’s a private, expensive, prep school for rich kids who get the best education…a bit of a deviation from what he wanted, it seems.

OK, here’s where this incoherent history lesson comes to a point…I long for Jesus to come. I long for the day when everyone is considered and treated equal. I long for the time when prostitutes can be free from being used and lead a full healthy life, when all slaves everywhere are sent home to their families, when students of all backgrounds have the same opportunity for good education. I long to witness rich millionaires keeping ten percent and giving ninety away, instead of the other way around. I long for the year when violence to others will cease and for people to be held high and set in prominent places for their love, not for their industrial achievements. May this new kingdom be brought about on a daily basis through all believers everywhere.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.



  1. Your closing statements are beautiful.

    I think your completely right that we need to remember our history, repent of the wrong doing and make marked changes in how we choose to recognize it and are careful not to repeat it. Worley should be as prominent and commonly known as Bell in Nashville. Building names and history books should be altered (not rewriting history, just sharing the truth from a proper perspective) to assure that.

    So, Daniel, any thoughts on what you can do now, in your community, neighborhood, street, church, city, job, and race to assure we remember our history properly?

    Comment by Ariah Fine — April 12, 2008 @ 3:26 pm | Reply

  2. P.S. This sentence sent chills up my spine:
    “Bell accomplished an enduring engineering marvel by using slave labor to cut a 290-foot tunnel through solid rock…”

    Are we so naive and warped in our thinking to acknowledge Bell for this accomplishment? What are the names of those who slaved away and died digging that tunnel? They are the ones who should be remembered as accomplished engineering marvels. Between Bell and his ‘accomplishments’ stand hundreds of humans stripped of their dignity and respect and physically forced to become tools in others accomplishments and they still become nameless, invisible asides to the great achievements of a vicious man.

    Comment by Ariah Fine — April 12, 2008 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  3. “force his attentions upon female slaves”

    Why can’t we just say that he was a rapist?

    Comment by indie — April 12, 2008 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  4. Thank you for this… it was enlightening and raw. I wonder what they teach about Mr. Bell at MBA… it would be interesting to know if they include it in their history lessons, or if it is just quickly skimmed over or some parts are left out.

    Comment by Christina — April 13, 2008 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  5. Montgomery Bell is my 4th Great Grandfather. The story in my family is that his change of heart came about slavery is that he was hurt in an accident. One of his female slaves found him and nursed him back to health. I have never read anything that says he raped his slaves. I do know that he was not good about paying his bills. He did have a teacher come in and educate his slaves when it was illegal to do so..He did spend a good portion of his money to repatriate a good number of his slaves. His eldest brother ran a stop in the underground railroad.

    Comment by Jimmy H — January 31, 2019 @ 10:30 pm | Reply

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