Establishing the Clarksville/Montgomery County African-American Legacy Trail
The cover of the African-American Legacy Trail tour brochure.
Local author and publisher Shana Thornton conceived the idea for the African-American Legacy Trail, and to make it happen she reached out to the students of the Rossview High School Academy of Media Arts & Technology. Among them was Kathyrn Boyer, who was selected to design the Trail’s accompanying brochure.
That brochure—clearly and beautifully put together, a sort of time-traveling passport—is distributed by the Mount Olive Cemetery Historical Preservation Society, which besides that work maintains one of the Trail’s most poignant stops (as we’ll get to). Many other sponsors, volunteers, and collaborators have also been involved in bringing the Trail to fruition; historian Jerome Parchman served as an advisor.
The 22 sites marked along the African American Legacy Trail include a cluster of downtown locations best appreciated on a walking tour as well as a number of farther-afield spots you can circuit through on a pleasant, partly rural drive.
Exploring the Clarksville/Montgomery County African-American Legacy Trail
Fort Defiance is the first stop along the tour and showcases Clarksville’s involvement in the Civil War.
From Clarksville’s vibrant downtown to historic sites a stone’s throw from the Kentucky line, tracing the Clarksville/Montgomery County African-American Legacy Trail yields reward after reward. Following this path opens up centuries of insights, giving you the light-footed, far-sighted perspective of a time traveler well aware of how the past informs, shapes, and enriches the present.
Consider Stop 1, the Fort Defiance Civil War Park & Interpretive Center. The namesake fort occupies strategic high ground: a 200-foot bluff above the mouth of the Red River in the Cumberland. African-Americans were mustered into its construction by Confederate Army leaders in 1861; the following year, Union forces seized Fort Defiance, though the Confederates briefly retook it in the summer of 1862.
Escaped slaves—officially deemed “contraband” by the Union—took refuge with General Ulysses S. Grant’s bluecoats in Tennessee, including around Clarksville and Fort Defiance, where they helped construct and maintain infrastructure. There were more than 3,000 former slaves camped in the Clarksville vicinity during 1864.
Today, Fort Defiance hosts a visitor center containing some fascinating and interactive artifacts and exhibits as well as a walking trail on its grounds.
The Burt Elementary School is a must-see along the legacy trail.
Another stop along the downtown walking tour portion of the African-American Legacy Trail is the Burt Home Infirmary (Stop 3) at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Current Street. This marks the site of Clarksville’s very first hospital, established by Dr. Robert Tecumseh Burt, an African-American surgeon, and his wife Emma, who worked as a nurse and anesthetist, in their home. (The hospital building burned down in 1992.) The Burt name also graces a couple of other downtown landmarks of the Trail: Burt Elementary School (Stop 6) and the Burt-Cobb Recreation Center (Stop 8).
Stop 4, which has been temporarily closed due to construction, is a Tennessee Historical Commission marker honoring the great African-American violinist and composer Clarence Cameron White, whose works include the opera Ouanga! and Symphony in D Minor.
There are three stops along the African-American Legacy Trail dedicated to Wilma Rudolph, including the Wilma Rudolph Event Center and Statue.
Exceptional African-American athletes with Clarksville roots are also celebrated on the Trail. At the Edgefield Missionary Baptist Church, you can pay your respects to a hometown star sprinter at the Wilma Rudolph Gravesite (Stop 14). Rudolph nabbed not one, not two, but three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome: coming out on top in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes as well as the 400-meter relay. When the City of Clarksville proposed a parade in her honor after the Games, she insisted it be an integrated one, which would become the first integrated public event in the city’s history. (The next two Trail sites also honor Rudolph: the Wilma Rudolph Event Center in Liberty Park, where you’ll find a statue of the Olympic champion out front, and a historical marker on Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. Incidentally, she also attended Burt Elementary School.)
Outside the core downtown district, you’ll find a marker (Stop 17) in front of Emerald Hill on North Second Street commemorating an accomplished African-American ballplayer. Born in Clarksville and a semi-pro for the Clarksville Stars as a high-school student, Steve Wylie went on to play in the Negro Leagues with the Memphis Red Sox and the Kansas City Monarchs. Heritage Park Sports Complex Baseball Field #3 is also dedicated to him.
Among the most deeply moving sites on the African-American Legacy Trail is the Mount Olive Cemetery (Stop 11), managed by the same non-profit that distributes the Trail brochure. Here lie the graves—most of them unmarked—of more than 1,300 African-Americans, including Civil War-era soldiers who served in the U.S. Colored Troops.
The Golden Hill Cemetery is a beautiful place to pay your respects.
Two other historic African-American burial grounds lie along the Trail: the adjoining Golden Hill and Evergreen cemeteries (Stop 13). Golden Hill Cemetery was established in 1863 by a former slave, Stephen Cole, and is considered Montgomery County’s oldest property under continuous African-American ownership; those interred here include Robert and Emma Burt. Evergreen Cemetery, meanwhile, dates from 1929. A gifted African-American stonemason and sculptor, Hiram Johnson, created many of the grave markers in both cemeteries.>
The African-American Legacy Trail also includes such stops as the South Guthrie Community Center (Stop 21), site of the Warfield School, built in 1922 by the African-American carpenter Benjamin Franklin Rives. The Warfield was one of Montgomery County’s Rosenwald Schools, established throughout the South in the early decades of the 20th century to serve African-American students. The community center displays a reconstruction of a Warfield School classroom. A few miles south, you’ll find the Benevolent Society at Port Royal (Stop 22): an African-American lodge organized in 1872.
Tour Greater Clarksville—and Step Back in Time—Along the African-American Legacy Trail.
The African-American Legacy Trail serves as a wonderful portal into the Clarksville area’s history and a great testament to the dedication and collaboration of its organizers. Spare a day (or three) to tap into its stories!