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Public Notices

April 23, 2014

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History's Light Burns Brigtly On Ellen 'Nelly' VanVactor

Originally published: 2013-10-07 11:00:27
Last modified: 2013-10-07 11:02:40



It was a time when a woman wasn't supposed to have a public voice.

For a black woman, history indicates that society then would have hardly been inclined to even publicly acknowledge her.

But for Ellen "Nelly" VanVactor, the racism, sexism and oppression of an 1800s society dominated by white, male property-owners was a challenge to which she refused to bow.

That strength has earned her a Tennessee Historical Commission official marker, located in front of the Greeneville-Greene County Public Library.

"I had seen her name in the tax records," local genealogist Stevie Hughes told attendees at Friday's session of the "Echoes of Emancipation: One Region, Many Voices Conference" at Tusculum College.

Hughes, a member of the Greene County Genealogical Society, had become familiar with the VanVactor name as she researched other families.


It was notable that a woman was on the tax records -- uncommon, Hughes said, but not rare.

Therefore it was not until she stumbled upon information indicating that the VanVactor family was of mixed race that she realized there was much more to be found in Nelly's story.

"That I was stunned would be an understatement," Hughes said.

Chasing the VanVactor name through the documents preserved by history, Hughes began to form the image of a strong, courageous woman well ahead of her time.

Nelly's home was located at the corner of Irish and Summer Streets. Today, the Towne Square Shopping Center's sign is at the approximate location.


Born a slave during the Revolutionary War, Nelly's first-born, a daughter, was also a slave.

By 1817, however, her son, Alfred, was born a free man.

"Sometime after 1800 but before 1817, she gained her freedom," Hughes said. "We do not know how; we do not know where."

Shortly after her son's birth, Nelly arrived in Greeneville with her two children in the company of Benjamin VanVactor.

A white man and a wealthy property-owner, VanVactor would petition the Greene County Quarterly Court for the freedom of Nelly's daughter, then 22, as well as for the freedom of her daughter's two children.

The County Court (the predecessor of today's Greene County Commission) granted the petition, which detailed that Nelly's daughter had grown up under VanVactor's care and that she had been faithful, obedient and industrious.

VanVactor told the court that he did not want to die and leave open the possibility of another man owning Nelly's family.

He died one month after the court granted the petition, Hughes said. He bequeathed his entire estate to Nelly, listing her as his housekeeper.


"Within a year, Nelly VanVactor began to acquire multiple properties," Hughes said.

When a prominent white man failed to repay her an amount owed, she took the matter before an all-white, male jury and won -- as she would other future financial disputes.

Over the next decades, she bought and sold property in key downtown locations, owning as many as six properties downtown when others only owned one or two.

She claimed as her neighbors future president Andrew Johnson, who took her son, Alfred, as an apprentice into his tailor shop, and the Rev. Samuel Doak, who would later be a major factor in the founding of what is today Tusculum College.

The last record of Nelly, Hughes said, was in July 1855, when she made a final sale of a property at the age of 75. There is no will or estate settlement, so she may have left the area.

Generations later, Hughes has found that Nelly's family now boasts descendants including William "Willie" Layton Roaf, a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, as well as a lawyer and a judge, the leader of a popular nonprofit organization, and an Episcopal priest.

Hughes said that Nelly's third great-granddaughter Phoebe Layton, now 95, wrote recently to Hughes and well-summarized Nelly's legacy:

"I will never be content until peace prevails and we, as a human race, do a better job of getting along and spreading the boundless joy that is ours for the asking."

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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