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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 449

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This is the grave of “Uncle” Alfred.

Evidently born in or around 1803, Alfred was the name of a slave who was the son of Andrew Jackson’s enslaved cook. He lived at the Hermitage or surrounding areas his entire life. He was mostly not out picking cotton, but rather was in charge of the plantation’s horses and farm equipment. He later became Jackson’s personal man servant.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Jackson’s descendants lost the Hermitage, but Alfred stuck around. By this time, with Jackson, unfortunately, one of the nation’s most popular presidents, the Hermitage became a tourist destination. This was extremely limited tourism compared to the present, but still, people would trek out from Nashville to see it. Alfred was there, ready to talk about his long-deceased master for money.

If you take the Hermitage tour, which I did a few months ago when I visited Tennessee on my grave trip, you get a little information on Alfred. Overall, the tour is pretty bad on slavery. Whereas Monticello now does a great job integrating slavery and evidently Montpelier does as well (thanks to your help, I am hoping to extend a conference trip and spend a day or two in Virginia in June, with Madison at the top of my list), the Hermitage does not. If you read some of the exhibits outside, you can learn a little about slavery but it’s clearly a secondary proposition and only nerds like me read signs anyway. The museum does nearly nothing with slavery and the tour barely mentions it. When they do, the one slave you do hear about is Alfred and he is clearly portrayed as the loyal slave protecting the legacy of the great man.

Barring sources that I don’t know about, it’s really impossible to know what Alfred was thinking through all of this. Probably first and foremost, he was thinking about a way to keep himself fed and housed. But there is a huge literature on how black people act toward whites while thinking something totally different and it’s very easy to imagine Alfred cursing how Jackson treated him and other slaves while selling an image of Jackson the hero to a paying public. What is frustrating is what is basically a racist portrayal on the limited tour you get in the house. The loyal slave is long a trope of southern white nationalist dreams about the past. Alfred still plays that role at the Hermitage, over a century after his death. Alfred died in 1901.

Alfred Jackson, as he became legally known after the Civil War, is buried at The Hermitage, the only slave burial site to be marked with a grave, one that continued to use him to serve a white political aim until the present.

If you would like this series to visit other ex-slaves, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harriet Tubman is buried in Auburn, New York and Blanche Bruce is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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