I imagined my great great great grandfather’s last breath into eternity as a prophetic awakening, and in that moment, he put all of the pieces together, understood the greater plan and accepted what had to be. That he would determine within himself to see it through, to live as a free man, no matter the cost.
My ancestors were survivors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, their bodies were snatched from the patch of earth they called home to labor and toil under the vicious brutal whip of chattal slavery. They picked cotton for wealthy southern planter families in North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi. Our foremothers were forced to breed and give birth to a generation of children whose bloodline would forever be mixed with that of the bloodline of European ancestry.
Then a new decade would transition them from being enslaved to newly freed men and women. They adapted and learned how to live again by becoming sharecroppers. Some would toil and save and purchase their own land, discovering that their new found freedom required more blood sacrifice to the unquenchable thirst of hatred and white supremacy. Their faces are hard edges carved from flesh and bone, resolute and determined souls, determined to pass down a legacy of becoming and living.
His surname Boyland denoted more than a spelling error, made by recorders or even the newly freed men and women who took the surnames of their masters, not knowing how to read and write. It could have also been intentional, a way to create distance between the enslaver and the slave, and a way to create clean hands. The adding of the letter d at the end of Boylan, to wash the stain of all those mulatto children listed on the 1850 Slave Schedules. Or was it a manifestation of something he longed for from the very first time he saw the vast fields of cotton crops stretching out before him as a child, where he learned how the seasons of life followed a pattern just like the land.
Somewhere between 1860 and the ending of the Civil War Jim’s family made their way to Fayette County, Tennessee. Jim Boyland shows up first on an 1880 Census Record at the age of 22 as a mulatto male. He is listed with his wife Fransis, age 18 and his mother July, age 90. He then shows up again on the 1900 Census, where he is listed with his wife Fransis and nine children. From eldest to youngest there is: Sallie, James Jr., George, John, Elma, Freda, Martha, Leona and Weldon. His occupation is listed as a farmer and it says he couldn’t read or write. His eldest child, Sallie is listed as being a teacher at age 19. The oldest boys, James Jr., George, and John are between the ages of 17 and 13 and are listed as being farm laborers.
Then finaly for the last time, he shows up on the 1920 Census Record for Fayette County with his wife Fransis. The record documents that he owned his home, free from mortgage and has a farm on his own account. The street name listed on the census record is Brewer School House Road, with 136 and 149 documented as the number dwelling in order of visitation, and the number of family in order of visitation. I have not been able to locate this road in any public documents other than the 1920 Census Record. There is a Brewer Street in Somerville, Tennessee which is in Fayette County and also is listed on Weldon Boyland’s military registration card.
The next record that documents my third great grandfather is his death certificate. At first I did not go over this document with a fine tooth comb and it would be months later that I would discover that Western State Hopistal had filed the death certificate. I originally thought it was just a regular state vital record. The death certifcate says he was treated there by a medical doctor by the name of W.D. Guthery, from January 19, 1923 until he died on November 5, 1924. I then began researching the Western State Hospital, which at the time of Jim Boyland’s death was also known as the Western State Asylum, and was only twenty-six miles away from the Brewer community in Fayette County where my he lived. The hospital was in Bolivar, Tennessee which is part of Hardeman County.
Western State Hospital
Western State Hospital now called the Western Mental Health Institute was constructed in 1886 and was one of Tennessee’s three major mental hospitals. It is located in Bolivar, Tennessee about 60 miles east of Memphis. The mental hospital was constructed by the McDonald Brothers, who had opened up an architectural firm in Memphis at the time. The McDonald Brothers based their design for Western State Hospital on the Kirkbride Plan. Thomas Story Kirkbride was a Philadelphia based psychiatrist who promoted a standard plan for the construction of asylums and mental health treatment.
The Western State Hospital site was located on a hilltop which once was a farm. Segregation policies in the South required a separate two-story ward for black patience and staff. According to state records the hospital was overcrowded and underfunded. The large ominous building with its long corridors was also known for its psychiatric treatment, which mirrored common practices in mental institutions at the time. These treatments consisted of diathermy, shock therapy, fever therapy, lobotomies, and Metrazol injections.
The Western State Hospital was also part of a national scandal involving Georgia Tann. Tann operated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, from 1922 to 1950, which was part of a black-market baby adoption agency. She would charge large adoption fees for children who had been kidnapped from poor families. Her clients included families all over the United States and also some well-known Hollywood movie stars. One of her sources for babies were female patients at the Western State Hospital. For almost three decades children born at the Western State Hospital were sent to Georgia Tann’s adoption agency. Children were sold in Britain and other countries as well. They were enslaved, beaten, and sexually exploited. The Memphis Orphanage was finally investigated in 1945 and eventually closed in 1950.
Dr. Edwin Cocke and Dr. Edwin Levy, two of the hospitals more notable superintendents and like many other superintendents of state mental institutions during this era, fell prey to prescribed ideologies that saw the emancipation of enslaved blacks as the cause for the rise in mental illness among blacks. In a journal article published by the Journal of Southern History, author John Hughes describes this social construct and explains how it was legitimized by the mental healthcare profession during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These ideas took on the same tenants of racism of the antebellum south that defended slavery based on the reasoning that blacks were intellectually and mentally incapable of participating in a civilized society and therefore needed to be under the control of a master class.
By the end of the Civil War and through the early 1900’s this rhetoric would be spread by medical physicians and professionals as sound scientific discourse. The number of black patients in insane asylums would increase dramatically, calling on state institutions to erect separate facilities for black patients all across the south. Kirkbride himself would support separate facilities based on race and class although large institutions contradicted his original plan.
The American Dream
From 1880 until 1920, the span of forty years, Jim Boyland and his family would accomplish many things. He married his wife Francis. Francis and Jim would become grandparents. They were one of the few black families to own there own land. His youngest son, Weldon served in World War I, and his oldest child, Sallie was a teacher. He was admitted to Western State Hospital on January 19, 1923 and would be treated there for one year and nine months. Jim Boyland would be held in an insane asylum rumored to perform experiments that included lobotomies and eugenics, and was also known for being involved in a black-market baby adoption service to wealthy families across the country and Hollywood movie stars. The death certificate says he transitioned from this world on November 4, 1924 at the age of 64. I wonder what happened in between the years of 1920 to 1923. Jim was among a small population of enterprising Black landowners and then he was committed to an asylum never to be heard from again.
Shortly after the Civil War tenant farming would become the new labor force in the south, with newly freed African Americans making up three fourths of tenant farmers. Although Blacks were widely excluded from land ownership in the south after the Civil War, by 1910 land ownership among blacks would hit an all-time high, with 14% of all farmer operators being Black Americans. Freed slaves and their descendants would accumulate over 19 million acres of land from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s.
From 1910 to present day the number of black land ownership would significantly decline to 1.3 percent. There are two factors that can be contributed to this decline, heirs’ property loss and white supremist backlash. Heirs’ property loss is where the descendants of landowners inherit land but have no will or documentation to prove they own the land. This would create the perfect recipe for predominantly white courts to take land from black land owners and put it back on the market to be sold. White supremist backlash would take on the form of mobs of whites running black landowners off of their land through violent attacks, threats and death. In 1912, over the course of two months, 1,000 blacks were driven from their homes in Fortsyth County, Georgia.
Jim Boyland along with ten other Black families owned or rented their land on Brewer School House Road, according to a 1920 Fayette County census record from the Department of Commerce-Bureau of the Census. Four of the ten families owned their land and Jim Boyland was one of them. The data from the census record shows the number of dwelling house in order of visitation and the number of families in order of visitation. It also has the street name, county, state, and whether or not the head of household owned, rented, and or owned free from mortgage. Henry Brewer, Elexander Brewer, Jim Boyland, and Plummer Williamson are all listed as Black head of household who owned their land free from mortgage on Brewer Road. Julia Seymour a Black woman rented her land along with, Elexander Davis, Will Mason, Joe Harvel, Isaac Lacy, and Johnnie Lacy.
The stretch of road and land on Brewer Street represented the enterprising spirit of freedmen and women. The pursuit of the American dream was well within their view. Fayette County Storymaps is an interactive website, with a map of Fayette County. As you zoom in on neighborhoods and communities, icons pop up. When you click on an icon a digital record is linked in a text window. I discovered newspaper clippings form 1912, property deeds from 1908, and teacher records. It not only pinpointed Brewer Road but also dozens of African American communities, churches, schools, lodges and cemetaries, all within the Fayette County, Tennessee.
Monroe Gooden, Tennessee Legislator
I discovered an interesting article about Monroe Gooden, also known as Monroe Harvell. He was 1 of 14 African Americans elected to the Tennessee General Assembly following the Civil War. Gooden was a prominent landowner in Fayette County Civil Districts 4 and 5, which is the north central part of the county and his father was one of the first freedmen to own land in Fayette County. Gooden was knowns for his enterprising share cropping operations and started purchasing tracts of land when he was elected to the General Assembly around 1887. It is said that at the time of his death he owned at least a thousand acres of land, and had many sharecroppers working under him, he would also go on to purchase the Patterson Cemetery, which is still located on Brewer Road. Gooden attended Williamson Chapel Baptist Church, which is also the surname of Plummer Williamson, a Black landowner on Brewer Road. On a 1920 Federal Census, Monroe Gooden Jr. is listed as being married to none other than Martha “Mattie” Gooden Boyland, Jim and Francis Boyland’s daughter. Mattie then shows up on a 1930 Federal Census and listed with her mother Francis Boyland, who is listed as a widowed, and Mattie is listed as divorced. River, Corneilus, and Orentha are listed Mattie’s children. I can’t help but wonder why the marriage split up.
This connection gives some context to the type of men Jim Boyland may have done business with and who his neighbors were. Brewer Road was its own little community among dozens of other communities developed by freedmen and women in Fayette County, Tennessee. They carved out a little piece of life for themselves and managed to square away something for their children and their children’s children. I could see it in the way my great grandparents, Nanny and Al lived. They made room for family, for celebration, and for joy.
- Tolnay, S. E., & Beck, E. M. (1992). Racial Violence and Black Migration in the American South, 1910 to 1930. American Sociological Review, 57(1), 103–116. https://doi.org/10.2307/2096147
- The Kirkbride Plan: A doctor’s interpretation of moral treatment and its reflection on architecture. Retrieved on March 12, 2023. https://gateway.uncg.edu/islandora/object/community:32351
- Labeling and Treating Black Mental Illness in Alabama, 1861-1910, John S. Hughes. The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Aug., 1992), pp. 435-460 (26 pages). https://www.jstor.org/stable/2210163