Belmont’s changing relationship with race and racism
Where the iconic Belmont fountain sits today, a house once stood.
A house alive with the daily work of its inhabitants. Families spanning multiple generations forced to cook, farm and clean without reward: the slaves of Adelecia Acklen.
Now, Belmont has dedicated the area surrounding the fountain to the very people who resided in its place over 170 years ago. With each enslaved person’s name engraved into the fountain, the Freedom Plaza Memorial honors those who were forced to labor there.
“Especially this year, we’ve seen it’s important to recognize our history in order to work towards a more perfect unity,” said head of the Faculty Senate Amy Crook. “Ignoring it, or trying to pretend something didn’t happen just because it makes us uncomfortable does not help us progress towards equality.”
In 1850, 13 enslaved men, women and children were moved on to Joseph and Adelicia Acklen’s Belmont estate, where they toiled alongside European immigrants to construct the Belmont Mansion, among other structures.
When the Acklens moved onto the estate three years later, they brought 23 more enslaved peoples with them — all of whom are honored in Belmont’s memorial.
“Everyone that is a student here should all know the history of where they go to school. What happened? What’s the full history of Belmont?” said president of the Black Student Association, Haily McGee.
Belmont’s Faculty Senate first took steps to become more transparent about Belmont’s history with racism after the murder of George Floyd by police officers in May of 2020.
They issued a unanimous statement condemning racism, and began to shift their conversations on how to rectify Belmont’s history.
“We know that students had wanted Belmont to address that portion of the land’s history before,” said Crook. “The statement that we came together and wrote really galvanized energy around this being the time to create a memorial that would honor the enslaved people.”
On Martin Luther King Jr. day, Belmont unveiled the new memorial, reading the names of each enslaved person aloud in tribute to them in a virtual video ceremony.
“With each step that you take on Freedom Plaza, I ask that you think about the steps each of us can take as we work toward the best Belmont,” said associate professor of pharmacy Dr. Anthony Blash at the ceremony.
“As your eyes fall on the names of the enslaved persons that toiled on these lands and to those whose names are known only to God, I ask that you remember that no part of what we do as a university is immune from the forces of oppression, objectification and dehumanization, and that we pledge to identify and challenge these forces as a community.”
The Freedom Plaza is not the only place on campus to learn of the university’s history with Black laborers. At the Belmont Mansion, students can learn how their stories span past the end of the Civil War, said Belmont Mansion’s Director of Operations Lauren Batte.
“When we’re talking about the Black lives at Belmont Mansion, we’re not just talking about the slaves. We’re talking about people who worked here after the Civil War as paid laborers,” said Batte. “I think it’s important to be clear, while they had their freedom, they were still living in a society that was dominated by the racism that existed prior to the Civil War.”
The university is also taking steps to include more diverse programming in its educational efforts. By providing anti-racist reading lists and adjusting curricular goals, Belmont plans to continue to have conversations about this pivotal topic.
“It is uncomfortable to talk about injustice, but ignoring it is not the solution. And, this was a great time to reach out through our curriculum and through this memorial to say we can address this in a way with dignity and honor that helps us grow and learn,” said Crook.
McGee believes Belmont has grown a lot in her five years as a student, and she sees promise in their latest initiatives.
“I think they’re being inclusive of the students, they are hiring more diverse staff, more diverse programming. Everything is being more open and inclusive to people of color and our culture and it’s pretty good to see,” said McGee.
The Faculty Senate’s work is not done, however. They are currently working to create a memorial for the indigenous peoples who once resided on Belmont’s land, said Crook.
“Hopefully, we’ll have an announcement about what the memorial will look like or when the memorial for the indigenous peoples will be happening by the end of this semester, as well as potentially new initiatives for the next academic year.”
In the meantime, both Crook and McGee hope for conversations around Belmont’s history with racism to continue on campus.
“Keep the conversation rolling, and never let the memorial die,” said McGee.
You can find more of Belmont’s history with slavery at https://www.belmontmansion.com/enslaved-families or through a free student tour of the Belmont Mansion.
This article written by Kendall Crawford. Contributory reporting by Jordan Shatto.