History plays role in debate over whether to rename Old Slave Road
By: Sarah Wilson
Nestled in the hilly woods of Wildwood is a road named for its notable black history. Old Slave Road, which dates back to a time in the 19th century when plantation landowners owned black slaves, is little known by many for its historical importance and influences on the existing area.
Since the days of its origin, the area has undergone a natural transition with new homes and residents, yet the street has retained its original name.
But now a few residents have decided it needs to change. Because of its historical significance and the use of the word “slave in the name,” some residents felt the name was “inappropriate” and “offensive” in these modern times. Also, because of its name, street signs have been stolen or vandalized where Old Slave Road intersects Wild Horse Creek Road, with costs to the city throughout the years.
So, in the fall of 2012, those residents petitioned for the city of Wildwood to start the process of changing the name.
The question is whether the word “slave” precipitates an insensitive topic that turns heads or simply is an accurate depiction of the area’s past.
Karen Fox, the petitioner for the name change, lives on Old Slave Road. She said the road name “is just not the most positive way to communicate the history of the area.”
“The reaction from people was usually pretty negative, and it shut people out,” Fox said.
So she said residents got together and “agreed that there needs to be a better way.”
Fox started doing research on the plantation and found that the developer in 1979 named the road, Old Slave Road.
“And he probably had limited resources and information,” Fox said. “He didn’t have the names we have now.”
Once a deeply eroded road, Old Slave Road was locally known as the “old slave road” and was believed to have been used to reach the plantation owner’s home.
In 1837, Reverend Robert Coleman relocated to Missouri from Virginia with his family and 54 slaves to settle a large plantation between Wild Horse Creek and the Missouri River. The family’s relatives, the Tylers, came with the Coleman family and brought 52 slaves of their own with them. Each owner purchased land and specialized in hemp production for off-plantation sale.
Coleman died in 1840 and his estate was divided between two of his sons, Robert and William.
Robert acquired the original homestead and operated a similar plantation with 36 slaves. William built a brick mansion and when he died in 1895, divided his acreage among his seven daughters. He gave his house and a 100-acre tract of property to his daughter Nannie, who married Frank Terry and passed the property down to her daughter, Maude. Eventually moving in her husband and his relatives, Maude sold the property in 1952 to Calvin. In 1979, Negley Calvin platted the Spicewood Farms subdivision.
Fox said she found the history of the plantation and its inhabitants fascinating and that renaming the road was a way to “positively commemorate who lived (there).” The trick was choosing the right name, one that honored the area’s history and its residents.
“And when you look at all the names in Wildwood, a lot of road names are named after people who lived here,” Fox said. “In all the research I’ve done, I haven’t found another road named after a slave.”
Choosing the name
Fox said one name that stood out in her research was Elijah Madison, a former slave on the plantation who also served in the Union Army.
It is unknown where Madison was born, but documents show that he was raised on the Coleman plantation.
A slave of Coleman, Madison in 1864 secured his freedom by enlisting in the 68th U.S. Colored Infantry, which formed in March 1864.
Gen. Henry W. Halleck in April ordered the regiment to Memphis to help defend the city. The unit also engaged in battles in Tupelo, Miss., where it successfully fended off Confederate attacks. Then the regiment was ordered to New Orleans and Florida. Later it marched to Alabama to help lay siege to the Confederate stronghold at Fort Blakely. The fort was eventually captured thanks to a network of trenches the 68th had dug, which brought Union troops closer to the fort.
After the war, Madison continued serving in the army until his discharge in 1866. He then returned to the Wildwood area near the Coleman plantation, where he became a successful farmer. He married another former slave, Elizabeth West, and together they had 15 children.
Madison is buried behind the remains of a late 19th-century African-American church and cemetery, known as Mount Pleasant African Baptist Church Cemetery and located along Wild Horse Creek Road.
Coleman’s slaves in 1841 built Mount Pleasant, once known as Antioch Baptist Church.
From 1841 until the mid-1860s, slaves owned by the Coleman, Tyler and other families were received or baptized into the church where blacks and whites worshiped together. Eventually a new church building was completed, and by 1869, all the black members met in the Mount Pleasant building and the white members worshiped at the new Antioch Church.
Madison’s grave is one of the few marked by headstones benefiting Civil War veterans.
“Elijah lived here until the end of his life,” Fox said. “His siblings and descendents also lived here. We just felt like with his name, we really had a strong tie to the entire history of this area and how things changed over the course of when he first was born up until the early 1900s.”
Fox said changing the name to reflect the land’s history is “a process, and it’s moving along.”
“We all want to recognize history,” Fox said. “So there are different opinions and viewpoints on how to do that. This would be the first road named after an African-American slave in the city of Wildwood and would really recognize the history.”
Lynn Martin, chair of Wildwood’s Historic Preservation Commission, said a name change would be a “win-win for everyone because I know one of the problems is their street signs keep getting stolen.”
But while the name change has support from some citizens it has drawn criticism from others.
Residents who live on Old Slave Road, as well as residents who do not, have voiced their opinions about the name change. However, Martin said it is only the decision of the property owners along the roadway and that other residents have no say in the matter.
“It is not their responsibility, nor their concern, truly,” Martin said.
Of trying to get the city involved, Martin said, “That’s what they would like to do … make it a city issue and it’s not. This is an individual property rights issue and it’s a private road.”
The property owners maintain the road, however, it is in a platted subdivision, which Martin said is the only reason the issue is coming before the city.
An advocate for the installation of signage that would commemorate the area’s history, Martin said she has been fighting for that change since 1999. She said the majority of the Historic Preservation Commission would love to see historical signage.
“People could stop and read the entire history of the area,” Martin said.
She reiterated that changing the name of the road would be a “win-win for everybody because (for) the people that are affected by this – it’s not they themselves – it’s other people that they come in contact with that dislike the name.”
The city’s ordinance states that the majority of affected property owners can choose to change the name of a road. However, some residents – such as Sally Branson, who also lives on Old Slave Road – are opposed to a name change – and therein lies the struggle.
“Old Slave Road was named after the slaves who worked, lived and died here and are buried in the cemetery, which is directly across the road from our house,” Branson said. “I just don’t understand what is offensive, and if you don’t like the name of the road, why did you buy property on it?
“Charlie (Sally’s husband) and I never had any problem with explaining it when someone asked, or when someone was curious about it. We always saw it as an educational possibility and were quick to explain it. “What it always elicited was ‘Tell me more.’”
Branson said she always saw the road’s name as “a positive rather than a negative.”
“So there is tremendous significance to the names here, and having known the Calvins years back, it was very clear that he (Negley) had looked into the history,” Branson said. “I have to say we’ve never had problems with it. Never.
“I’ve heard it mentioned several times that the name is ‘very uncomfortable,’ but I don’t imagine these slaves were too terribly comfortable for the lives that they had on this earth.”
She said Fox “did a pretty remarkable job of fathering all kinds of information,” but does not think changing the road to Elijah Madison would do the area’s history justice.
“While his history as a slave was absolutely fascinating, and I do not wish to discredit it in any shape or form, he didn’t live on the road,” Branson said. “He wasn’t born here and he’s certainly not buried here (in the slave cemetery), and the name of the road is named for the slaves that are buried down there.”
Other names that have been suggested are Freedmen, Old Slave Cemetery Road, Madison Valley Lane and Spiceberry Court since Old Slave Road spurs off of Spiceberry Lane.
“Some people think that it should go back to the neighborhood, and there’s a whole lot of people that feel this is far bigger,” Branson said.
Final decisions and recommendations
The Historic Preservation Commission is set to further discuss the issue and make a decision at an upcoming meeting on its recommendation.
The Administration/Public Works Committee received the request from the Department of Public Works to review and consider. Changing the name of an existing street in Wildwood typically would not include a review by other boards or commissions. However, in this instance, the nature of the road’s name and the history of the area, led the City Council to seek the assistance of the Historic Preservation Commission. The commission in November 2012 held a public hearing on the matter to hear resident input.
Branson said she admires the city for the efforts it has taken to accommodate its residents during this process.
“I absolutely applaud them and the powers that be over there for seeing this as something that is far more important and historical,” Branson said. “They’re sticking to their guns in terms of our original game plan when we started up this city and that is to protect (the) past. Too many cities don’t do that, and shame on them. I applaud them for at least having the desire to want to at least check it out and see what’s going on before making any knee-jerk decisions.”
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Editor’s note: As Ms. Wilson began working on this story, several letters to the editor arrived from Wildwood residents opposing the name change; however, since these individuals do not live on Old Slave Road, their comments have been included in “Letters to the Editor” rather than being quoted above.