Persons of African descent were involved in the establishment of Nashville in 1780 and made up 20 percent of the city's original settlers. Free blacks constituted 21 percent of the city's African American population; however, the vast majority were slaves. Whether slave or free, Nashville's African Americans created numerous associations that catered to their religious, educational, and social needs. The number of associations, particularly prior to the Civil War, is difficult to discern because the institution of slavery and a set of laws, known as slave or black codes, limited the mobility and social interaction of Nashville's black population.
Slaves, who in their homeland had created secret societies and associations, were forced either to end their social activities or to go underground. In Nashville, slaves continued to gather secretly. They met for social gatherings in the homes of free blacks and conducted religious meetings in the woods that became their “invisible churches.” Recent archaeological discoveries at the Hermitage plantation near Nashville in Davidson County indicate that many slaves wore lucky charms, such as clenched hands, carved of wood or stone, and other symbols of their secret societies and associations.
Similarly, free blacks quietly formed associations and organized clandestine schools prior to the Civil War. Between 1833 and 1837 Alphonso Sumner, a black barber, operated the first of these schools until he was accused of writing letters to fugitive slaves, whipped, and exiled. Sumner relocated to Cincinnati, where he became an abolitionist and publisher of that city's first black newspaper. Daniel Wadkins and other free blacks carried on Summer's work in Nashville and continued to teach African American children until December 1856. That month working-class whites started a “race riot” and forced the black schools to close. Despite restrictions on educational activities, Nashville's free blacks were allowed to operate an “African Bazaar” and maintain four quasi-independent church congregations. By 1860 Nashville's black population numbered 3,945, constituting 26 percent of the city's total population.
The Civil War and the Union army's occupation of Nashville in February 1862 served as a social catalyst and provided a fertile and protective environment for the development of black institutions. During the war, the city's African American population increased to more than twelve thousand persons, not including some thirteen thousand U.S. Colored Troops who served with the Union army in middle Tennessee. The black population explosion was largely the result of the influx of fugitive slaves who were housed in contraband camps in and near the city, which now had five black residential areas.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Nashville's black population launched numerous social, religious, benevolent, and mutual aid societies. Prewar free blacks organized the Rock City Lodge F. and A.M., for those “who belonged to the more intelligent [elite] portion of their race” (Republican Banner, July 17, 1867). On August 17, 1865, Cincinnati's William G. Goff officially inaugurated the lodge, which had thirty-seven charter members, including John B. Hadley, Nelson Walker, James H. Sumner, John J. Cary, and James C. Napier. By 1866, almost all the black church congregations had declared their independence from the white churches and started to establish not only religious associations but also temperance and benevolent societies. Other postwar associations included the Colored Barbers' Association,
Nashville: Civic, Literary, and Mutual Aid Associations