The Enslaved Craftsmen of Oaklands Mansion
Oaklands Mansion survives as a preserved relic of the antebellum South. Its graceful architecture and detailed design tell the story of the elegance and prosperity established through the course of the 19th century by one of the pioneering families of Murfreesboro, the Maneys.
Once a simple, two-room brick home, Oaklands Mansion took several decades to become the jewel that it is today. Much of that growth is due not to the work of Eurpoean craftsmen but rather the slaves who occupied Oaklands in its days as a plantation.
“Dr. James Maney and his sons did in fact purchase enslaved people with specific skills, carpenters, blacksmiths,” said John Lamb, curator at Oaklands Mansion. Many of the slaves were purchased in Rutherford County, according Lamb.
Dr. Maney was originally from North Carolina. He and his wife, Sally Hardy Murfree, settled on the tract of land that is Oaklands when she inherited the land from her father, Colonel Hardy Murfree, for whom Murfreesboro is named.
During the decades the house was constructed, Dr. Maney worked as one of the first doctors to specialize in childbirth, in Middle Tennessee. Later, he would go on to help establish the first female-only Eaton College, which no longer exists.
However, what is often over-looked in the extensive history of Oaklands is that skilled enslaved workers crafted the beautiful Italianate design featured on the home’s front.
The Italianate design was added around 1860 when Dr. Maney's daughter-in-law, Rachel Adeline Canon Maney, inherited the plantation.
But, the identities of the men who did the work under the direction of local architect Samuel Richard Sanders has never been fully explored, according to Lamb.
“It is likely some of the enslaved owned by the Maney family were used in the construction of the house, but I know of no specific individuals who were identified as being involved with the project,” said Lamb.
Nameless they may be, their work stands as a credible accomplishment to be recognized.
The hidden history that lies within each curve of the mansion’s plasterwork bears cultural significance. These skilled craftsmen were entrusted with the task of creating the “public face of the Maney family,” according to Michael Fletcher, a tour guide at Oaklands.
The windows, archways, and ceiling medallions were all hand-crafted by the enslaved workers. Their detail suggests expert finesse in their trades, while each design of the home continues as a prominent feature in Murfreesboro.
Using skilled enslaved workers was common, especially in more urban areas where they were apprenticed, according to Fletcher. The enslaved craftsmen were hired out to families like the Maneys to create beautiful works seen throughout antebellum homes.
After a certain period, many enslaved craftsmen could buy their freedom through their craft, according to Fletcher.
Most likely, the skilled craftsmen learned their skills directly from other craftsmen.
“As far as I know, those skills were passed down person to person directly through mentorship or apprenticeship,” said Lydia Simpson, programs manager at the Middle Tennessee Center for Historic Preservation.
Typically, younger enslaved individuals apprenticed under their elders. Their skills would then become valued assets
“Mothers taught their daughters skills in the kitchen; fathers passed down skills in carpentry and blacksmithing,” said Lamb.
Too often, historians associate portions of history into simplified segments. When the average person thinks about slavery, he or she may picture field hands hard at work tilling the rich Southern soil. Even though many enslaved people did endeavor in that line of work, many were trained and apprenticed to become fine craftsmen whose work is still admired today.
And their work remains an important part to preserve.
“When the historical built environment of marginalized groups is systematically eliminated, it creates greater division within communities and disconnects people from the visible evidence of their ancestors and heritage,” said Simpson.