By Megan Zinger
The African American Heritage Society (AAHS) is a nonprofit organization in Williamson County, established in 1997, whose mission is to preserve artifacts about local African American history and educate the community and future generations about the heritage. The nonprofit was formed after a group of concerned citizens wanted to preserve and protect African American history in Williamson County. African American Heritage founders were Mary Mills, Bazelia Harris, Louise Patton, Thelma Battle (African American historian), Mary Pearce (Former Director of the Heritage Foundation), and Rick Warwick (County historian). These six key people, along with many others, formed AAHS. Alma McLemore, a descendant of Harvey McLemore by marriage, is the current president of the nonprofit.
The McLemore House, originally built in 1880, astonishingly, still stands strong despite past efforts of the community. In the early 2000s, the home was condemned after 117 years of Harvey’s descendants living in the house. Habitat for Humanity purchased it to tear it down and build a Habitat home. Thelma Battle and Mary Pearce were persistent in negotiating with Habitat for Humanity to buy the house and preserve it. The Heritage Foundation at the time gained possession and deeded it to AAHS for one dollar.
The McLemore House was first renovated and opened as a museum in 2003. The most recent renovations started in April 2021 and were completed in December 2021. In addition, $125,000 was raised through grants and donations to install a new roof, 1880s flooring donated by Franklin’s Charge from a home torn down on Columbia Avenue, a period sink and other interior details to reflect Harvey’s era. AAHS celebrated its revamped opening day with a special one-day event. Reenactors gave tours and told the inspiring story of Harvey McLemore, who was formerly enslaved.
Despite the challenges after the Civil War, many African Americans began building new communities, including churches, schools, and businesses. After experiencing almost thirty years of slavery, Harvey was determined to build a better way of life for himself and future generations. He became a successful, hard-working farmer and purchased four lots in Hard Bargain, the first community development for black middle-class teachers, carpenters, farmers and more. Down the road, Harvey’s granddaughter, Mag Matthews, even ran her beauty business in the home’s foyer decades before it became a museum open to the public. Visitors can still see the salon chair she used sitting in the museum’s front.
Aside from the typical museum tours, the McLemore House also does special educational programs for all ages to generate awareness of the importance of African American history. Youth groups have come for tours where they experienced making homemade butter, soul food cooking, porch talks, quilt shows, African American Doll shows, open houses and other cultural events. In addition, AAHS’s annual Juneteenth event has been held there for the past sixteen years.
The Black Tie Affair, one of AAHS’s most significant events of the year, is the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser whose proceeds go towards continuing preservation of the McLemore House and the new Merrill-Williams House project. This year’s theme is “Keeping Hope Alive.” The sold-out event will take place at the Embassy Suites in Cool Springs on March 12th, and will include a night of celebrations, awards and honors. There will also be music, dancing, prizes and giveaways and a best-dressed contest. The organization asks attending guests to wear a mask and show proof of vaccination. AAHS will continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 and the public health guidance regarding large gatherings.
Many exciting things are happening for the AAHS this upcoming year! AAHS is in the process of preserving the historic Merrill-Williams Home, located at 246 Natchez Street in the Natchez Street Historic District. The home was originally part of the Carter farm during the Battle of Franklin and was built by Moses Merrill, a formerly enslaved person, in the late 1880s.
Cassandra W. Taylor inherited the home from her father, Fred Douglas Williams, upon his death in 2012. After listing the home and receiving other offers, which could have resulted in the house being torn down, Cassandra accepted AAHS’s offer. The purchase of the Merrill-Williams House was a critical save in preserving African American history in Franklin. Special thanks to donors Emily Magid and Calvin and Marilyn LeHew, plus donations from the community, for contributing to this big save. AAHS is also partnering with the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation to open Franklin’s first Heritage Center. The Heritage Center will serve as a place for locals and tourists to learn more about the city’s history and bring awareness to the Natchez neighborhood.
Regular hours for the McLemore House museum are expected to resume this spring. AAHS offers one-year memberships to the organization that gives year-round access to the museum during business hours and inside information on special events happening. For more information on becoming a member or upcoming events and projects, visit AAHS’s website at aahswc.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Current board members of the AAHS are Harvey Chrisman, Mary Mills, Sonya Johnson, Paulette Johnson, Howard Kelton, Carolyn Wall, Tovitha Williams, Juanita Patton, Michael Brown, Matt Brown, Julian Bibb, Kimberly Menifee, Mary Pearce, Sarah Critchlow, Evon Heath and Alma McLemore. Board Emeritus is Thelma Battle, Rick Warwick, Eleanor Bright and Mary Walker.