“The majority of African-Americans who remained in the south became tenant farmers or sharecroppers by the end of the Reconstruction era, yet there are few locations in Middle Tennessee that interpret this significant part of history,” said Tori Mason, Interpretive Programs manager for Nashville Zoo. “Our hopes for this exhibit are to honor the work of Mr. Morton and his family, and provide our visitors with a window into the daily lives of tenant farmers throughout the south.”
Through a 2016 grant from Humanities Tennessee, we were able to hire scholars to help us properly develop interpretive narratives that focused on the enslaved experiences at Grassmere and across the state. With additional funding from Humanities TN, we were able to hire the professional services of exhibit designer Adam Alfrey from Knoxville. Being able to work directly with an experienced exhibit designer allowed the stark room of the pre-Civil war era cabin to transform into the reflective, educational, and moving space that was needed to properly tell the Morton family story. Funding from the grant allowed us to have professional graphics created that were not only aesthetically pleasing, but also impactful in their presentation. In addition to creating exceptional graphics, the grant funding allowed us to add an extra component to the exhibit with audio oral histories from Morton family members Rosie Morton Beasley and Vera Morton Sharply. Originally recorded in 1991, these oral history recordings provide a first-hand account of the Morton family’s life at Grassmere and the simplicity of living off the land and family togetherness.
However, the biggest accomplishment for this entire project was the bringing together multiple generations of Morton family descendants for the grand opening of the exhibit, held on Juneteenth, June 19, 2021. Through Frank Morton’s great-granddaughter Joyce Hillman and two more individuals who contacted us through Facebook, we were able to connect with over 100 Morton family descendants, representing 4 generations. Many of them attended the grand opening ceremony, and many family members were visibly moved by the information we were able to provide, and the fact we were keeping their family story and legacy alive for generations to come.