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Talking Over the Bones

Tonight's debate takes place against the backdrop of past and present slavery


Nathan Knapp

When Donald Trump and Joe Biden take the stage at Nashville’s Belmont University tonight, their words will be spoken over the bones of enslaved Black people, at a university partially funded by a private prison industry responsible for what many consider a form of modern-day slavery.

Belmont is a private Christian university that cut its ties with the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 2007 but remains firmly evangelical. What the school doesn't publicize is the fact that the architectural centerpiece of the campus is a mansion constructed in the early 1850s using the wealth of slave trader Isaac Franklin. While many universities have dubious characters like Franklin in their history, few have Franklin's present-day counterparts on their board of trustees.

Two major players in the private prison industry sit on Belmont's board. Damon Hininger, who received his MBA from Belmont in 2000, is CEO of CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corp. of America, one of the country’s two largest private prison corporations. CoreCivic was founded in Nashville and its headquarters are located in a nearby suburb. CoreCivic’s former CEO, John Ferguson, also serves on Belmont's board.

CoreCivic and its closest competitor, the GEO Group, account for 80 percent of the U.S. private prison industry. As has been widely reported, the prison population is overwhelmingly Black and LatinX; in 2018, 34 percent of the male prison population was Black and 24 percent LatinX. (Interestingly, the female prison population is largely white.)

Since 2000, the number of prisoners in private prisons has increased by 45 percent, according to The New York Times. The Obama administration tried to do away with private prisons on the federal level. The Trump administration reversed that ban. Since 2015, CoreCivic and GEO have diversified, reaping windfalls from running detention centers that warehouse refugees fleeing violence in Central America.

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Scene inside a private prison. New York Times.

Before it was founded as a women’s school in 1890, the site where Belmont University now stands was a lavish 177-acre estate. Owned by Adelicia Acklen, the grounds both were and are dominated by the Belmont Mansion. The opulence of the place is difficult to fully express.

As the mansion’s website puts it: “the entire Belmont estate was built, furnished, and landscaped by the Acklens and boasted such luxuries as lavish gardens, an art gallery, a bowling alley, and a zoo.” The immensely wealthy Acklens, of course, did very little of the actual building or landscaping. That work, according to Learotha Williams, a professor of history at Tennessee State University and tireless champion for the preservation of historic Black public spaces in Nashville, was for the most part done by the thirty-plus enslaved people who lived, worked, and died on the property.

Born in 1817, Adelicia Acklen is considered by many historians to have been one of the wealthiest women in America . She was almost certainly the wealthiest in Tennessee. How she came by her wealth is seldom discussed. At twenty-two. Acklen married Isaac Franklin, a slave trader twenty-eight years her senior.

As Betsy Phillips wrote in her excellent essay on him for the Nashville Scene a few years back, Franklin is one of the least well-known of Nashville’s historical figures. Rather than an importer of Africans, Franklin was a middleman notable for his business acumen, introducing efficiencies in the transport of slaves from the mid-Atlantic states to the harsher ministrations of the Deep South, and during a cholera epidemic, surreptitiously dumping the dead bodies of enslaved people in a swamp.

Williams describes Franklin as “one of the largest, if not the largest slave trader in the United States.” The amount of pain that Franklin caused African Americans is so staggering that we are “still struggling—academics just as with ordinary people—to even find the correct words to define.”

On the day I visited the Belmont mansion, that struggle to define the legacy of Franklin’s destruction seemed to consist of awkward euphemisms. As the tour guide put it, Franklin gained his wealth in “not a great way,” as a slave-trader. Aside from the number of slaves he owned, nothing more was said.

Though not the wealthiest man in America, according to Joshua Rothman, a history professor at the University of Alabama and expert on the internal American slave trade, Isaac Franklin was “certainly in the one percent of his era.” He owned more than 65,000 acres of land, including a 2,000-acre plantation just outside present-day Nashville, called Fairvue, and seven plantations in Louisiana. Four of the Louisiana plantations were later sold to the state, combined, and given the name Angola, becoming the largest maximum-security prison in the United States, the name synonymous with cruelty.

Franklin also owned more than 750 enslaved people. All that “wealth” was passed onto his wife. According to Rothman, “Most of the money that builds Belmont is, if not Franklin’s money, it’s money built on his money.”

Inside the mansion, I saw two portraits of Franklin. Neither are marked. In the later portrait, he stares down on the viewer wearing an expression of cold, highly competent intelligence. A certain bemused self-satisfaction plays along the corner of his mouth. This is the expression of the most successful human trafficker in American history.

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Isaac Franklin

For an equivalent, consider the idea of walking into a historic house located on the grounds of a university in modern-day Germany. Imagine coming across an unmarked, smirking portrait of the most successful human trafficker in that country’s history, Heinrich Himmler.

I’m not saying the Franklin portraits shouldn’t be there. For them to go unremarked upon, however, makes a statement all its own. The silence says: This man belongs here.

The Mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Five years later it opened as a museum. Its exterior is maintained by the university, while the Belmont Mansion Association maintains the interior. Like many former plantations and slave-holding estates in the South, it also functions as a wedding venue, a practice Williams finds deeply troubling: [T]hese were places identified with pain, suffering, and fear. And of course sexual violence as well . . . . That type of joyous occasion on ground that was known for pain, known for suffering that has been largely masked—I don’t really get that or understand it.

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Wedding at the mansion.

Of course, holding a wedding on grounds like these isn’t the only desecration of such spaces one sees in the modern-day South. At Fairvue, where Isaac Franklin’s imposing family home still stands surrounded by a development of gaudy modern-day mansions, a golf course fairway near the house is lined with former brick slave quarters. The slave quarters bear no identifying historical markers, except perhaps those of the contemporary defacements caused by golf balls smacked into their sides by the former plantation’s current wealthy inhabitants.

Though Adelicia Acklen twice remarried after Franklin’s passing, their bodies were reunited in death. Both are buried in the same family mausoleum in the Confederate Circle of Nashville’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. The Confederate insignia is emblazoned above the entry.

Fifty yards directly in front of the Acklen-and-Franklin mausoleum looms a forty-five-foot tall Confederate monument. The soldier atop the obelisk faces north, rifle at the ready. The bodies of one of the most destructive men in American history and the woman who profited off of that destruction lay behind the soldier, as if it was their way of life, and the destruction it caused, he was sworn to protect—but perhaps the past tense is inappropriate. He’s protecting it still.

Meanwhile, Belmont University is protecting and profiting from the contemporary version of the slave-holder’s life. “It was a compulsory, violent existence that lead to the magnificence you see at Belmont,” Williams said. That magnificence is at least-in part sustained at the university through its direct connections to CoreCivic. “Belmont is benefiting directly from that."

And the industry is booming. During the second Obama administration, the number of Central American refugees rose dramatically, and CoreCivic and GEO Group received a total of $884 million in federal contracts in 2015 alone, according to an analysis of records by Public Citizen reported by The Washington Post.

During the Trump presidency, the profits have been even greater. Shortly after Trump’s election, in early 2017, shares of CoreCivic rose 140 percent.

In 2018, CoreCivic and GEO Group received $1 billion in federal contracts, the vast majority of which came from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to Public Citizen. In an investigative report published last December by USA Today, CoreCivic generated $1.9 billion in revenue between September 2018 and September 2019. Despite thousands of coronavirus infections at its facilities, the Nashville Post reported in June that the company had disclosed $25 million in profits during April and May alone.

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Protesters block the entrance of CoreCivic in Nashville in 2018.

Opposition to the private prison industry has been growing, both nationally and at Belmont. Over the summer, Be Better Belmont, a student activist group made up of former and current students, began pushing for the school to divest from CoreCivic and remove Hininger from its board. The school’s administration hasn’t budged. I reached out to university president Robert Fisher for comment, but received no response.

Claire Hennigan, a Belmont senior and Be Better Belmont’s volunteer co-coordinator, told me relations between the activist group and the administration are growing tense. She met with Fisher for a one-on-one over the summer. “Bob Fisher will say that he knows [Hininger], and [Ferguson], and that they’re good Christian men,” Hennigan said as we spoke in the Belmont student union, a short walk from the mansion.

Good Christian men. After talking with Hennigan I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head. I wondered if anyone would have attributed the phrase to Franklin in his day. It seems doubtful, perhaps simply because the internal slave trade was visible in a way that prisoners locked in America’s for-profit prison industrial complex are not. Prisoners these days are driven by van and bus from place to place. In Isaac Franklin’s day, they were marched in chains along the same roads that everyday people walked.

“[T]he slave trade was everywhere,” Rothman had explained. “If you were traveling on a road [in the South], there was a pretty good chance you would eventually see a slave trader walking slaves.”

Even if it seems doubtful that Franklin would’ve been considered a good Christian man, he still lived his public life in the upper echelon of American society. This despite the fact that he trafficked thousands of human beings, routinely separated families and raped his female prisoners along the way. He fathered a child by one of his slaves. Both mother and child were sold before his marriage to Adelicia Acklen, then known as Adelicia Hayes, the cousin of President Rutherford Hayes.

Acklen's young and wealthy life had not been untouched by tragedy. Engaged at 17, her fiancé had died of typhus, and her seven-year marriage to the much-older Franklin resulted in four miscarriages. She later remarried a war hero, stipulating that she would retain control of her own assets. She and her new husband built the 20,000 square-foot Belmont mansion. It was later purchased by two schoolteachers and handed over to the university.

Acklen is commonly touted—without irony—as a kind of feminist icon at Belmont. To take but one example: on the day of the 2018 Woman’s March in Nashville, the mansion’s Twitter profile tweeted out a picture of Acklen with the caption: “At a time when roles for women were extremely limited, Adelicia Acklen created a place for herself unique to history. Her story continues today as an example of what determined women can and will achieve.”

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Adelicia Acklen

Acklen's story—if we try to tell the whole story—is also of a person who was almost unimaginably rich, who owned over seven hundred slaves. And who used her late slave-trader husband’s vast fortune to build the Belmont Mansion, the anchoring physical presence of an evangelical university that refuses to remove the CEO of the one of the country's most profitable carceral institutions from its board, because, as Belmont’s current president puts it, that same CEO is a good Christian man.

It wasn’t so long ago that it was possible to be an openly racist evangelical Christian without staining the shining shirt of one’s salvation. The ancestors of the modern evangelical supported slavery before the Civil War, and then afterward fought to maintain segregation. As of 2014, 86 percent of all evangelical denominations remained segregated.

The Southern Baptist Convention formally apologized for its past support of slavery and segregation in 1995. In June 2019, the convention passed a resolution endorsing Critical Race Theory, a framework for examining how social institutions reinforce racial inequality. The move was roundly criticized by its members.

In response to the Southern Baptist Convention resolution, this past November the Tennessee Baptist Convention—with which Belmont University was associated from 1951-2007—passed its own resolution, condemning Critical Race Theory as “a secular worldview.” Small wonder, when less than half a century has passed since many of its members believed a Biblical worldview included segregation.

I grew up in southeast Oklahoma, attending a Southern Baptist Church three times a week throughout my childhood. I can’t remember a single time that race was addressed from the pulpit. We human beings are sinful, I heard that. And I heard repeatedly that we can’t help sinning.

But there was an out. Christ functions as a kind of divine conscience-cleaner. No matter how nasty the crime scene (the sin-scene!) if invited in, Jesus enters, scrubs the blood off the walls, replaces it with his own, and hands out shining robes to anyone willing to pray the prayer accepting him into one’s heart.

There is something inherently democratic in this version of Christianity. Jesus can use anyone. He clean up any mess.

I’m convinced that this is why so many evangelicals find it easy to swallow such an obvious sinner as Donald Trump. The President perhaps more than anyone else shows how God can take the greatest of sinners and use him for His glory. Amen!

The only real difference between the modern evangelical and the segregation-supporting Southern Baptist of the Jim Crow period is that the modern evangelical tends to prefer white supremacy in its less visible forms. If you can’t see skin color, you can’t see whiteness, and if you can’t see whiteness, then you cannot—and more to the point, will not—see Black pain. You’re even less likely to notice Black pain if you keep the people that endure that pain behind prison bars. This helps keep the white evangelical’s conscience clean.

Damon Hininger profits from the imprisonment of millions of human beings. That apparently doesn’t mean God can’t use him. As evangelicals love to say—as I heard them say repeatedly throughout my entire childhood—God can use anyone. And if the Almighty can use anyone—by God, so can Belmont.

The Be Better Belmont students have their hearts in the right place, I think. What they fail to understand is that Hininger isn’t an aberration on Belmont’s board—he’s a perfect fit. This is why it’s so important to understand Isaac Franklin. If we do, it makes it possible to see him in his present form, as a so-called Good Christian man like Damon Hininger.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, as well as pressure from Be Better Belmont, President Fisher released an official statement on July 27. In addition to a number of vaguely worded new policies designed to increase racial awareness on campus, Fisher’s statement announced “a plan to create a physical plaque or other monument that will recognize the full history of the property.”

As yet, however, there has been no movement on divestment from CoreCivic. “We’re totally getting shut down,” Hennigan says. It seems to her, however, that the pressure is affecting President Fisher. According to Hennigan, during welcome week activities this August, Fisher told a group of freshman orientees that the university’s Covid-19 policies would function like “a minimum-security prison.”

Hennigan spoke of a culture of fear around speaking up at Belmont. Though some faculty members privately support the group, so far not a single one has stepped forward to support Be Better Belmont in a public way. Every Belmont faculty member I contacted declined to be interviewed for this piece. Same goes for staff members at the mansion.

After repeated attempts, I finally received a response from mansion executive director Mark Brown on September 22. This was a full fifty-one days after I first got in touch. He declined to do an in-person interview, but offered to answer whatever questions I had via email.

He wrote that while the “African American and European immigrant stories that are part of Belmont Mansion have long been part of the interpretation, however, we have not done enough.”

I emailed back asking him to clarify what, specifically, he felt they had not done enough of. The response I received was—you guessed it—no response at all.

Donald Trump would have no compunction about appearing at a venue bankrolled, in part, by an industry that is a major contributor to his campaign. Biden has pledged to end the federal government's dependence on private prisons, but apparently his campaign didn't get the memo on Belmont.

I’m not breaking any major news here. I know that. Almost every institution of higher education where this debate could be held has a skeleton—or a whole host of them—in its closet. What fills me with anger and despair is that Belmont is, this week, pretending to be a bastion of civic duty, to be a kind of “good Christian university,” unlike, say, their Falwellian cousins up the road at Liberty University.

Yet while the younger Falwell sins out in the open—or rather from the corner of his bedroom while his wife sins upon the bed with the pool boy—the buttoned up and professional-looking folks at Belmont pretend that all is well. Because, well, they don’t have to pretend. All is well at Belmont. All is exactly as it God ordained it to be: the bones of Black people undoubtedly lay buried beneath that campus. The lives of Black people behind bars, and the money made from those lives, helps water the splendid flower beds that line the quad beneath the mansion. Black lives do matter at Belmont: they’re the fertilizer that keeps the flowers growing and the lawns green.

Nathan Knapp's writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, 3:am, Tin House, and elsewhere. Born in Talihina, Oklahoma, he recently relocated to Nashville, Tennessee.

Slavery Days ::: Burning Spear

Slave Master ::: Seun Kuti & Egypt 80

Slave Driver ::: Taj Mahal

No More Auction Block ::: Bob Dylan

Prisoner ::: Lucky Dube

Volunteered Slavery ::: Rahsaan Roland Kirk

The Black Cross / Hezekiah Jones ::: Bob Dylan

Never Going’ Back To Nashville ::: John Stewart

No More Auction Block ::: Odetta