Germantown's secret history as a utopian colony for freed slaves

On a grassy median at the corner of Summer Avenue and Sycamore View Road stands a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it historical marker. It’s inaccurate (its dates are wrong) and ill-placed (it’s miles from the Germantown site it describes). Its inscription is vague and belies its true significance.

The sign describes a “colony whose aims were the enforcement of cooperative living and other advanced sociological experiments.” That ‘advanced sociological experiment’ was, more accurately, an attempt to end the institution of slavery while saving the South’s economy through education, communal living and sexual revolution.

The Nashoba Community was the brainchild of arguably the most interesting woman in early American history. Frances Wright was an unusually tall and “manish” woman, described as “precocious” and always with her signature top hat. She was also the country’s first female playwright, an advocate of workers’ rights and the rights of women and people of color, the first female editor of a national journal, and the first woman to formally lecture to men. Wright was the hero the first suffragettes dreamt about.

Born in Scotland in 1795, Wright was wealthy, well-educated and progressive. She first traveled to the U.S. with her sister in 1819 to tour the northeast. Once home, she published “Views of Society and Manners in America” and garnered the attention of many prominent people, including Thomas Jefferson and Revolutionary War hero, General Marquis de Lafayette. In 1824, Wright returned to tour the southern U.S. with Lafayette.

Historic marker located at Summer Avenue and Sycamore View Road inaccurately reflects the dates of the experimental venture.

While she’d seen the inequity of slavery in the North, in the South she observed firsthand the full brutality of the institution. She wrote, “The sight of slavery is revolting everywhere. But to inhale the impure breath of its pestilence in the free winds of America is odious beyond all that imagination can conceive.”

Within a year, she’d move to America, gain citizenship and publish “A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States Without Danger of Loss to the Citizens of the South”. The treatise was a how-to for the abolishment of slavery that was more appealing to slave owners than most of its contemporaries because, simply put, the slave owners still stood to make money.

“Slavery is an economic system first, racism then comes to justify that system,” said Wayne Dowdy, local historian and the chief archivist for the Memphis Public Library’s history collections. “The biggest hang-up in the early days with abolitionists wanting to free slaves is slave owners saying, ‘We want our money back. We actually want more money, we want to profit.’”

Economics is an issue of profit but also of labor. Freemen were in direct competition for jobs with white workers and whites feared they might incite enslaved workers to run or revolt. In response, Tennessee passed a law requiring free persons of color to petition local governments for permission to stay. The prevailing wisdom of the day held that the best solution was to emancipate then relocate the newly-freed outside of the South.

There was also an argument against a sudden emancipation for the sake of the enslaved themselves. It would be cruel, they reasoned, to free people without any education or support in the transition to citizenship. What good was freedom with no resources for success?

Wright’s vision held a solution for all three core concerns. First, she proposed slave owners be compensated for their “loss.” Slaves would be purchased then large farms would be built in each state where they would work towards emancipation in an indentured servant model to offset the cost of their purchase.

As they worked, they would be educated on skills necessary to prepare them for life in free society. Children would also be educated and families kept together to establish stable home-lives. When their debt was paid, the freemen would be relocated to Haiti and the western U.S. and their labor replaced by poor white workers “depressed by the slave industry” and willing to work for low wages.

To promote racial harmony, the farms themselves would be cooperative, with all persons treated and working equitably. Emancipation would serve as motivation rather than barbaric corporal punishment.
Frances Wright, c. 1825, the year she founded the Nashoba Community.Wright had an innovative plan, but also critical to her success was the relatively liberal lean of the early 1800s.

“The interesting thing about it for me is that there’s no opposition to it,” marvels Dowdy. “In fact, it’s by and large celebrated. Thomas Jefferson before he died was aware of her ideas and had her to Monticello. The mayor of Memphis, Marcus Winchester, was just as supportive.”

The 1820s and ‘30s were a transitional period where whites could participate in the institution of slavery while still remaining critical and calling for an alternative. Generations had been raised within the system and no one was sure how to end it without crippling the South’s economy, but there was at least desire to do so. Morally and economically, slavery was not the future the South’s leaders envisioned.

“By the end of the 1850s, it’s ‘Oh, no, it’s a social good. We’re doing the right thing.’ This notion that slavery is wrong disappears from the South,” said Dowdy. “The South is slavery. Period. That’s our culture, that’s our heritage, and we’re clinging to it.”

But Wright was in a sweet spot, a time that encouraged debate and experimentation. In the winter of 1825, her utopia was the hot new theory for social change, but it remained untested.

To prove her case, Wright looked to Tennessee where abolitionist sentiments were strong and a tract of land spanning the Wolf River she described as, “2000 acres of good and pleasant woodland, traversed by a good and lovely stream.”

In this dense, virgin hardwood forest, the Nashoba Community set its roots.

Wright recruited a group of white supporters willing to relocate, received donations for startup costs and traveled to Nashville where she purchased the first eight slaves.

Together, the inhabitants set about clearing the land, beginning with 15 acres around present-day Riverdale Road and Poplar Avenue in northwest Germantown. Basic structures like homes, barns, storage and a small store were constructed. They planted staple crops, primarily cotton, for profit and food crops to sustain themselves.

They made plans for a school and additional housing and amenities for 150 slaves working towards emancipation. Wright reasoned that it would take five years for each individual to work off the cost of their purchase and relocation, an amount equal to $6,000. Plus six percent interest.

Wright’s dream was short-lived.

“Frances Wright was a philosopher, not a farmer,” Dowdy said.

Her grand plan failed to account for the backbreaking work necessary to clear the land, let alone plant and harvest. None of the leadership had experience in large-scale farming, and they wrongly assumed that the slaves would have knowledge of plantation life. This was not the case as the majority of Tennessee’s rural slaves lived on small farms.

Articles and documents detailing the life of Frances Wright and the Nashoba Community, part of a larger collection available at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library's Memphis and Shelby County Room.

Wright also showed her ignorance of human behavior and the psychology of slavery and assumed, with emancipation on the line, the enslaved would work harder and in full cooperation with white residents. She was baffled when they were willful or distrustful.

In a final critical misstep, Wright underestimated the heinous strength of Southern summers and the diseases they brought. Just over a year after launching the project, exhausted and sick with malaria, she was forced to retreat to Ohio before returning to Europe.

Without its visionary leader, Nashoba began to crumble in earnest. The caretakers entrusted with the commune’s management began to invite more white members, some of whom had their own agendas and shifted focus away from equity and emancipation. They stop educating the enslaved adults, claiming they weren’t as capable of learning as the children. There were even reports of corporal punishment.

Not only were ideals being compromised, by the end of 1827, profits were also abysmal. That year the farm produced less than $250 worth of goods.

Reeling from mismanagement, Nashoba was then rocked by a moral scandal when one of the trustees, James Richardson, published part of a diary detailing life on the commune. In one entry, a man attempted to rape a woman. She complained to the trustees and the man was reminded that community rules state all relations must be “the unconstrained and unrestrained choice of both parties.”

In another entry, Richardson announces that he and Mamselle Josephine, a woman of color, were in a relationship and moving in together.

Extramarital sex, interracial relationships, radical consent, and women with bodily autonomy? Surely, Nashoba was beyond all reason and dignity!

A sketch drawn by a visitor to the Nashoba Community shows the cooperative at its height, still largely undeveloped but with a few houses, storage buildings and a small store.

Wright immediately returned to the U.S. and defended the diary by publishing a lengthy letter outlining Nashoba’s principles, including the belief that racial harmony is best achieved through interracial relationships.

Reports often cite the diary as the lynchpin in Nashoba’s demise, and for sure, supporters distanced themselves and donations disappeared. But Dowdy has a different take. He believes that the model was flawed to begin with. The Scottish aristocrat, however well-meaning, was blinded by a glamorized view of the South and couldn’t see past King Cotton and the grand plantation houses to a more practical business model.

“If they had understood better the non-Uncle Tom’s Cabin, non-popular culture of the South and understood the economics of it better, they might have come up with a more viable alternative,” he said. “But the only economic reality anyone paid attention to was the cotton economy.”

Nashoba had plenty of alternatives. The timber on the land was incredibly valuable and could have been sold to local sawmills to fund the project. Nashoba could have built its own sawmill. Shoemaking, blacksmithing and other light industrial jobs were in demand and less risky than farming. Even a smaller farm would have been a safer starting point.

While a scandal makes for an interesting story, ultimately, utopia was lost to ignorance, mismanagement and lack of profit.

“If it was economically viable, she wouldn’t have lost support,” Dowdy said. “There would have been powerful forces, if they were making money off of this thing, that would have crushed [Richardson].”

By 1830, the grand social experiment was over. The white residents went their separate ways while Wright and the now-30 slaves sailed to Haiti where she left them in the care of the Haitian president with the stipulation that once any remaining debt was worked off, they would be freed and given land to start their new lives. Wright moved to Ohio and continued to fight for social change until her death in 1852.

In the years following Nashoba, opinions on slavery hardened, the grand experiments stopped, and the country erupted in war to decide the question of emancipation. The Nashoba lands went to Wright’s estranged daughter and her heirs before languishing in litigation over back taxes. Eventually, its timber was stripped and it was sold to develop new subdivisions as the City of Germantown expanded.

Today, the only thing that remains of the Nashoba Community is the foundation of the main house, a newer home resting atop it, and an ill-placed, inaccurate sign. 

Wright was of her time as much as she was ahead of it, and 190 years later, some are her core principles are still worth preservation and continued work. Resources and support to balance inequities that still exist in our institutions and social fabric, greater social integration and cooperation, radical consent and bodily autonomy—those are ideals worth remembering beyond a misplaced sign.

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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.