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April 17, 2014

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Region's Abolitionist History Explored In Lecture Series

Originally published: 2013-04-12 10:23:51
Last modified: 2013-04-12 10:25:47

Orr Says Pioneer

Colleges, Churches

Played Key Role In

Shaping Attitudes



In the decades leading up to the Civil War, this area of East Tennessee -- Greene and Washington counties in particular -- played a crucial role as the "nucleus" of an "enlightened" movement toward abolition of slavery and equality of civil rights for all people, regardless of skin color.

This was the main message from Dr. Robert Orr, widely known local historian and educator, during the first in a series of lectures concerning the "Civil Rights Movement in East Tennessee," held at Tusculum College.

Orr is president of Washington College Academy, holds a doctorate in history, and has formerly taught regional history and Civil War history at the college level.

He has written extensively on the life and career of Andrew Johnson.

Orr's lecture series is being held in the Thomas J. Garland Library on the Tusculum College campus.

The lecture series will continue with sessions on Tuesday, April 16, 23, and 30 from 6 to 8 p.m.

The public is invited. There is no cost.


In his lecture Tuesday evening, he said that pioneer colleges and churches established in the late 1700s and early 1800s played a major role in spreading a "non-racist worldview," particularly in the North and the Midwest.

The Rev. Samuel Doak, a Doctor of Divinity educated in the late 1700s at what is now known as Princeton University, came to this area in the late 1770s and established Doak's Log College.

That school, considered the "first classical school west of the mountains," became Martin Academy in 1793.

A couple of years later in 1795, the school came to be known as Washington College. It is now known as Washington College Academy.


Orr said that research has shown that important regional educational and church leaders of that time -- Doak, the Rev. Hezekiah Balch, and Dr. Charles Coffin, to name a few -- were willing to educate black people and bring them into the ministry.

That "was an important breakthrough," Orr said.

"A breakthrough of ideas has to happen before a breakthrough of politics," he added.

A volume of Doak's lectures, compiled posthumously in 1845, refers to what Orr calls a "common sense" philosophy, which was the belief that all individuals are given the same senses by God.

Doak's philosophy, Orr said, was "staking out a position, an interpretation of human beings, that stresses the commonality of all mankind -- a non-racist point of view."

Orr stressed, however, that Doak's lectures did not say outright that he believed slavery was wrong and should be overthrown immediately.

In fact, Doak himself inherited slaves from his wife's family.

Orr said that the historical record is unclear, but it is "highly likely" that Doak freed all or all but one of the slaves prior to his own death.


One student of the small local colleges was Sam Milligan, of Greeneville, who in 1865 authored the amendment to the Tennessee Constitution that ended slavery in the state forever.

The small schools and local churches largely influenced by Doak -- such as Tusculum College, and First Presbyterian Church, then known as Harmony Church -- were emancipationist strongholds, Orr said.

"There's an intertwining of these people, no matter their field -- whether it was education or ministry -- who shared this philosophy of freedom," Orr said.

By 1815, anti-slavery societies began popping up in Tennessee.

Quakers, Presbyterians, and Methodists were very active in anti-slavery societies locally, Orr said.

John Rankin, the most famous of Doak's students for being a prominent abolitionist and one of the founders of the Underground Railroad, said "it was safer in 1816 to make abolition speeches in Tennessee and Kentucky than it was in the north."

In this area of East Tennessee alone, there were reportedly 16 anti-slavery societies.

By 1827, the year Andrew Johnson located in Greene County, Tennessee had 25 anti-slavery societies with more than 1,000 members; numbers larger than a handful of northern states combined.


Andrew Johnson in 1839 assisted Samuel Witherspoon Doak with a petition to the state legislature to help free two slaves in Greene County.

By 1834, East Tennessee emancipationists and abolitionists were working under the guise of "internal improvements" to propose separate statehood for East Tennessee with the actual goal of making slavery here illegal.

At that time, State Senator Johnson supported the bill for East Tennessee statehood, but politicians from this region were increasingly alienated from political power by politicians from Middle and West Tennessee.

Political opponents of Johnson began referring to him as "an abolitionist in disguise."

Johnson himself was a slaveholder, but by request, Orr said.

He was actually approached by slaves on the market, asking him to purchase them to prevent them from being sold to cotton plantations in the deep South.

Johnson's slaves, Sam and Dolly, stayed with the Johnson family after emancipation, and Sam worked around the town for wages.


Greene County had an important role in the Underground Railroad, Orr said.

It is documented that Levi Coffin, one of the founders of the Underground Railroad, harbored a fugitive slave from Greene County.

Coffin contacted Rankin -- a student of the local small colleges -- for help, knowing he had ties to Greene County.

Orr said this example is a "concrete instance" in which the Underground Railroad helped individuals escape from the slave system through contacts in East Tennessee.

Orr said two main routes of the Underground Railroad passed along the roads of Greene County.

Few written records about the Underground Railroad could be found, so Orr and researcher Randi Knott advertised "a number of years ago" for those with knowledge of oral traditions concerning local Underground Railroad sites.

Orr said numerous responses poured in.

He and Knott then plotted the sites on a map, finding a significant cluster along the 107 Cutoff/Old Jonesborough Road, past a landmark known as Paint Rock.

Orr said investigation of a number of homes in the area indicated they likely were Underground Railroad stops, with trapdoors and other hidden accommodations.


Orr said The George Jones house, a historic home on North Main Street recently demolished to accommodate expansion of the Walters State Community College Greeneville-Greene County campus, was identified by oral tradition as being an Underground Railroad stop.

Orr said the house had a cistern -- which was strange, he said, given the house's proximity to the Big Spring, the source of drinking water for the town for more than a century.

That cistern, he said, had an inner chamber with a pump and a larger outer chamber.

"It was clear to me that the outer chamber was a hiding place," Orr said, noting that he had requested an opportunity to look at it before the house was razed.

Orr said that, if there was no connection between the inner and outer chambers of the cistern, it almost certainly would have been used as a hiding place for escaping slaves.

Orr said that he never was able to see the cistern prior to the demolition of the house.

"It's not just a question of losing an old house," he said, noting that North Main Street was "remarkable" for having virtually "door-to-door" Underground Railroad sites -- an indication that a large number of escaping slaves moved through the area.


Greene County and its court were particularly favorable to granting freedom to slaves -- at times even directly overriding state law, Orr said.

In 1831, the state passed a law that no freed blacks were allowed to move to Tennessee, and requiring recently-freed slaves to leave.

That law, Orr said, was highly unpopular in East Tennessee.

Court records for Greene County showed a direct local conflict with the state law by 1839, with the local court freeing slaves and allowing them to stay in Greene County.

A "benign, non-racist worldview," Orr said, was "manifested by Greene County juries in the numerous decisions in which Greene County blacks fought for and sustained their civil rights."

He cited a number of incidents pulled from Greene County court records, including an 1861 indictment against an individual for allowing a slave to live here as a free person. That case was actually dropped by the prosecution itself.

In 1833, the state began revisions to its constitution, and a major struggle to end slavery in the state ensued.

A number of counties provided signed petitions asking that slavery be ended, with East Tennessee providing the most petitions, Orr said.

In fact, Greene County provided the most signatures, as First Presbyterian Church used its printing machines to create a form that could hold a large number of signatures.

"This was the area where the anti-slavery movement was the strongest," Orr said.

This "enlightened worldview," he said, "made East Tennessee an unusual Southern area," directly conflicting with generalizations made by a number of scholars.

"Local courts were very good about the civil rights question, even during the slavery period," Orr said.

He noted that some of the most noted historians in the country have "major misconceptions" about the area.

In fact, he said, one scholar, Eric Foner, a professor of Columbia University widely considered an authority on the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, said there was no "true" sentiment in East Tennessee for emancipating slaves.

"I think you can see from what I've said tonight that he is clearly wrong," Orr said during the lecture.

"These modern works are just wrong about East Tennessee," he continued.

"It's led them into a series of misjudgments about our history that are really very terrible."

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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