Wanna share your family’s story? Participate in the Middle Tennessee African American Oral History Project

George Green, the son of Nathan “Nearest” Green, sits to the left of Jasper Newton Daniel in this early photo of the Jack Daniel Distillery crew. Green’s story as the former enslaved Black man who taught Jack how to make whiskey is now world famous. Other area families can share their stories through the Middle Tennessee African American Oral History Project. (Historic Photo Courtesy of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery)  

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Nearest Green and his contribution to Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey exists as the most famous piece of African-American history coming out of Lynchburg but there are also other stories. Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) invites locals to share and preserve their oral histories as part of Murfreesboro’s Juneteenth celebration on June 18.

The United State established Juneteenth as a national holiday in 2021. The federal holiday occurs on June 19 and commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans. It honors the anniversary date of the June 19, 1865, announcement of General Order No. 3 by Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas, which was the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery.

Middle Tennessee State University will be making connections at Murfreesboro’s Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18 to capture and preserve the family stories that have flavored community gatherings for decades. MTSU’s Albert Gore Research Center, which has been preserving Middle Tennesseans’ stories since 1999, is making use of its portion of a new grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to collect oral histories from African American residents of Middle Tennessee.  

Jason McGowan, an oral history research associate with the Gore Center, will be at the historic Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center on June 18 to answer questions, distribute information and put guests at ease while he helps arrange to record their stories. Gowan created the Middle Tennessee African American Oral History Project website that helps explain how to participate in the project.

“Like with anything, some people are going to be excited to participate, while others may decline or just need reassurance, and that’s why I like to do what we call the pre-interviewing, because it’s the key to building those relationships … and reassuring them that what we’re doing here is not just for MTSU, not just for academia, but it’s for you — you and your family. You’re simply allowing us to share your experiences,” explains McGowan, a Murfreesboro native who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MTSU. “Oral history just provides a medium to preserve family genealogy, record one’s relationship with their families, with their communities, and with the era in which they live.” 

McGowan’s interest in Bradley Academy and Murfreesboro’s history is deeply personal as well as professional.  

His late grandfather, Willie McGowan, led the 1990s effort to save and restore Rutherford County’s first school, which included President James K. Polk among its pre-Civil War alumni. In 1884 it became the county’s first school for African American students and served children until 1955.  The senior McGowan’s and his colleagues’ success transformed a fading building into a popular museum and community center on the National Register of Historic Places. It now features regular events and historic exhibits — and plenty of opportunities for telling and collecting stories. 

The oral histories project isn’t limited to older contributors, McGowan says.  

“I always think about it as what are some of the things I want to ask my granddad but I wasn’t able to,” he says. “Even though this person (being interviewed) may not even know my grandfather, they may have grown up in the same time period, and the stories he tells and the stories this other person tells may connect in one way, or you may get two completely different aspects of the same time frame. 

“That’s enjoyable too, because you get to see it holistically, to see the holistic evolution of Black people here in this middle Tennessee area. … Sometimes a smell, a word, a feeling can trigger something: ‘You know what? I just remembered this. I haven’t thought about this in so long.’ People have stories; they just might need to be reminded of them.” 

The Bradley Academy Museum and Cultural Center is located at 415 South Academy Street in Mufreesboor and McGowan will be onsite from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 18. For more information about the Middle Tennessee African American Oral History Project, contact McGowan at [email protected] or 615-898-2030. To learn more about the work of the Gore Center, click here. For the city of Murfreesboro’ complete Juneteenth 2022 schedule, click here. •

{The Lynchburg Times is the only locally-owned newspaper in Lynchburg and also the only woman-owned newspaper in Tennessee. We cover Metro Moore County government, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Nearest Green Distillery, Tims Ford State Park, Motlow State Community College, Moore County High School, Moore County Middle School, Lynchburg Elementary, Raider Sports, plus regional and state news.}