In 1880, just 16 years after a momentous Civil War battle had left its indelible mark on the city of Franklin, Harvey McLemore, a former slave and successful farmer, made a new kind of history when he bought land in downtown Franklin and built his home. The neighborhood, known as Hard Bargain, became a prosperous middle-class black neighborhood in the 19th century, an area rich in history to this day. And for generations – more than 117 years – the McLemore family lived in their simple, white frame house, now a part of history.
Today, through the efforts of concerned citizens, the McLemore House African American Museum, the oldest remaining black residence in Franklin, stands as a monument to the accomplishments and traditions of the city’s black community and as a gift for future generations. “Our mission is to collect preserve and interpret history so that children would know how things used to be in this community, how people lived,” says Mary Mills, one of the driving forces behind the effort to buy the home and turn it into a house museum in 1997. “What were trying to do is erase the gap between the races. That’s what we’re about.”
McLemore House Renovation and Preservation
The museum has come a long way since 1997, when visitors could see the ground through holes in the floor, and the roof was in tatters. Through the hard work of the African American Heritage Society and the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County, with help from the state of Tennessee, money was raised to purchase the home. The museum opened to the public in 2002. Since then, the AAHS has raised money through fish fries, an annual black-tie gala, garage sales, cookbook sales and private donations. Political parties and service clubs have helped, and many individuals have donated historic artifacts and furniture and helped in efforts, such as The Great American Scrap-a-thon, in which the home’s old exterior paint was painstakingly scraped off.
The museum is a busy place. It frequently hosts schoolchildren, with black history programs on everything from how slaves used spirituals as a means of communication and World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen to old-fashioned games. The house is a treasure trove of historically fascinating items, especially a kitchen that seems straight from the turn of the last century, down to butter churns, gingham curtains and a wood-fueled stove. One of the city’s most valuable historic resources, the museum was featured during the National Trust for Historic Preservation ’s national conference in Nashville in fall 2009.
“Historic Preservation is about telling the whole story of our community, and African American history is an important part of our community,” says Mary Pearce, executive director off the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County. “The McLemore House museum tells the important story of reconstruction in Franklin and the South.” Complementing the McLemore House are the city’s three other nearby house museums. The Carter House on Columbia Avenue is as legendary as the epicenter of the 1864 Battle of Franklin, and today is a registered National Historic Landmark and a fascinating museum of the period.
The Lotz House
Across the street, the Lotz House – on the National Register of Historic Places – offers an additional look at Civil War history. Lotz family members took shelter in the basement of The Carter House with the Carter family during the battle. Carnton Plantation, a carefully restored and interpreted historic site, played a key role in the battle and has enjoyed renewed fame with the publication of Williamson County author Robert Hicks’s novel, The Widow of the South, set at Carnton during those momentous days.
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