Thursday, February 20, 2020

Robert “Black Bob” Renfro: Tennessee’s First Black Entrepreneur

In June of 2006, Kathy Lauder and Mike Slate published a book of essays, From Knickers to Body Stockings. The essays were chosen by Lauder and Slate from their Nashville Historical Newsletter which was first published in January of 1997. I am posting with permission from Lauder and Slate, one of the essays, Robert “Black Bob” Renfro:  Tennessee’s First Black Entrepreneur. It was written by Larry Michael Ellis, who wrote and published Spizerinctum, The Life and Legend of Robert “Black Bob” Renfro, in 2004. A link to Spizzerinctum will be included at the end of this page. 



Robert “Black Bob” Renfro:  Tennessee’s First Black Entrepreneur

By Larry Michael Ellis

Robert “Black Bob” Renfro is mentioned by name in at least 25 records during the period that Nashville-Davidson County was part of both North Carolina and Tennessee, and he is listed as both a slave and a freeman.  Part of John Donelson’s epic river voyage, his group left the Donelson party on April 12, 1780, at the Red River near present-day Clarksville.  His master, Joseph Renfro, was a kinsman of the group’s leader Moses Renfro.  Indian attacks drove them from what had become Renfro Station, probably in June 1780.  Accounts differ as to the sequence of events which followed, but we do know that Joseph Renfro was killed near present-day Coopertown at what came to be known as the Battle Creek Massacre.  Folk legend says that Black Bob saved his mistress and her children.  Other historical accounts state that only a Mrs. Jones escaped.  Nevertheless, Bob’s mistress, Olive Renfro, did arrive at Fort Nashborough where she petitioned for and was granted “letters of administration” for the estate of Joseph Renfro.

Bob does not appear in an official record until August 8, 1792, when he was sold by Olive Renfro (now Shaw) in what appears to be a three-party transaction.  Bob became the property of Josiah Love, whose financial troubles involved him in several lawsuits,  with Andrew Jackson serving as his lawyer.  One foreclosure on Love lists Bob as his only asset.  Around the same time, Love entered into another complicated transaction in which two people claimed ownership of Bob: Robert Searcy, a prominent lawyer, and Elijah Robertson agreed to let the courts determine the true owner. In November 1795 the Court ruled Searcy was the rightful owner.

In the meantime, on January 16, 1794, the Davidson County Court agreed that “… a certain Negro called Bobb [sic] in the town of Nashville be permitted to sell Liquor and Victuals.”  This was the origin of what came to be known as “Black Bob’s Tavern.”  A 1797 record lists an assault occurring at the “house of Black Bob.”  This establishment was probably located on what is now Third Avenue, south of the Public Square. 

An unusual event occurred in April 1800 when schoolmaster Anderson Lavender assaulted Bob.  Lavender was indicted by the Davidson County Grand Jury.  When he agreed to pay court costs, the case was dissolved.  This was a significant moment in legal history: a white man was indicted for assaulting a slave and the case was not simply dismissed.  Andrew Jackson, Archibald Roane (future governor), and David Campbell were the judges when the suit was heard before the Superior Court.

Robert Searcy maintained ownership of Bob until 1801, five years after Tennessee became a state.  Searcy believed that Bob had more than paid back his investment and agreed to free him.  However, freedom and emancipation are not synonymous terms.  Fifty-three of Nashville’s most prominent and influential citizens, one of whom may have been a woman, signed a petition to the General Assembly requesting that Bob be emancipated, “giving him all the privileges that is [sic] usual to persons in a similar situation….”  The Fourth General Assembly of the State of Tennessee Chapter XCIII on 
November 10, 1801, granted the request and further stated that he “shall in the future be known as Robert Renfro.”

The emancipated Robert Renfro opened a new “House of Entertainment” in 1802 that was located on Main Street (current day Second Avenue).    Robert then purchased a life estate in Lot #25 from Robert Searcy on Main Street where he built and operated his business until a fire destroyed the establishment in 1814.  He then rented and operated the “stone tavern on the public square, near the courthouse….”

Robert Renfro continued to be involved in court cases, prevailing in at least three cases before white juries.  In an 1805 breach-of-contract case he sued Charles Dickinson (who was killed the following year by Andrew Jackson), and the appeals process established several Tennessee legal precedents.  Renfro’s name is listed on militia and tax roles, as well as in the records of several other legal transactions.


The last record mentioning Robert Renfro dates from 1816. Although no record has been found of his death, his name does not appear in the 1820 US Census of Nashville.  

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Click the link to read a preview of Larry Michael Ellis' book. 


The book Spizzerinctum is fiction based somewhat on historical fact. 




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