Daniel and Amanda’s Weblog

April 12, 2008

A Prominent Place

Filed under: Racism — theburts @ 12:36 pm
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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.

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