Two miles south of downtown, Ft. Negley once stood as the centerpiece of the Union’s occupation of Nashville during the Civil War.
Built by both free and enslaved African Americans, it later protected the city during the Battle of Nashville.
More than 150 years later, yet another battle, pitting preservation against development.
For Gary Burke, stepping onto Ft. Negley is a reminder of slavery’s painful past.
“Even out of that series of degradation for many people in the U.S., they were able to overcome that, and became soldiers and fight for their freedom,” said Burke.
It’s this sense of pride Burke had been sharing with others at the fort as a Civil War reenactor.
Six years later in 2007, he had a life-changing discovery.
“At first, I wept,” said Burke.
Burke’s own blood, his great-great-grandfather, Peter Bailey, was a member of Company K of the U.S. Colored Troops.
He was stationed at Ft. Negley.
“It’s a full circle moment to find out, just gave more dignity to the 10,133 men of color who served in Tennessee,” said Burke.
But preserving this history hit a roadblock when efforts to turn the fort into a national military park failed.
In 1928, the city of Nashville purchased the site.
Over the decades, the fort was reconstructed and restored into Ft. Negley Park.
But a new battle began in 2017.
Developers, with the support of then-Nashville mayor Megan Barry, proposed building a mixed-use development on a dilapidated 21 acres bordering the fort – Greer Stadium.
Building Ft. Negley was three months of intense labor.
The stone was quarried locally and built by the hands of more than 2,700 African American laborers who sought protection in Nashville.
Many of them died because of harsh conditions.
In January, an archeological firm found that human remains of the laborers are highly likely under at least part of the fort at Greer Stadium.
The plans were withdrawn after that discovery.
“They were working here almost like slaves,” said Clay Bailey, President of Friends of Ft. Negley, which advocates to protect and preserve the fort. “Yet the fundamental difference they realized was that what they were working on would lead to their emancipation.”
Those behind the proposal meant the group was working against big names in real estate and music, like T Bone Burnett.
Bailey said there were moments of doubt.
“Yeah, we wondered if we could many any headway at all,” said Bailey.
But they did.
In March, Mayor David Briley vowed to reincorporate the stadium back into Ft. Negley Park.
“This is a moment, a place, where we begin to acknowledge, and atone and seek reconciliation,” said Briley.
The plan going forward is two-fold.
First, demolish the stadium and seed grass on the site.
Second, design a green space reflecting the history of the fort.
“There might be some kind of water feature,” said Bailey.
Other ideas include themed play spaces after the Civil War, a memorial trail to honor the African American laborers, even a U.S. Colored Troops Institute.
The design would be based on a cultural landscape survey, currently in the works.
“We want people leaving this site saying, ‘Wow! I didn’t realize that’ because it’s a place where people can experience epiphanies,” said Bailey.
“Right now, we’re just telling stories,” said Burke. “We need something for the future.”
One-million dollars in Metro’s reserve funds would pay for the demolition and seeding.
But funding the master design plan is still up in the air.
The Metro Parks Department told News 2 solicitation packages for the demolition and the archeological oversight projects are currently being developed.
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