Oak Ridge Colored Families
Thireenth in a series of historic articles about Anderson County, presented as a part of the county’s participation in the American Revolution Bicentennial and the county’s 175th anniversary.
Clinton Courier News
January 24, 1974.
By Katherine B. Hoskins
Uncle John Tate and Aunt Priscilla.
Lived and died in Clinton
Stories retold of two slaves: John Tate and Aunt Priscilla
About 1840 Dr. Milton Tate came to Clinton from Tate Springs, Tenn. He brought with him his slave, a black man named John. Shortly after moving to Clinton Dr. Tate purchased a farm, and in 1844 he was elected Circuit Court clerk. He was also engaged in the practice of medicine, so he was very busy most of the time. He entrusted the management of his farm entirely to John, and at times when he was visiting the sick, John attended the clerk’s office. Dr. Tate died in 1856 and was buried in the McAdoo – Baker Cemetery in North Clinton. After his death it was found he had willed his farm to John.
As time went on John became well known throughout the county. He was intelligent, kept posted on current affairs and came to exercise considerable influence in local politics and church circles. He frequently spoke at political conventions and people listened to what he had to say. He was large in physique, and eloquent speaker and had a strong musical voice. He loved to sing.
He became a minister and was said to have preached a simple, direct gospel which changed many lives. Tate organized Asbury Methodist Church in Clinton May 29, 1865. It was first called Tate’s Chapel M.E. Church. The building timber was hewn by Tate and charter members of the church, and the cornerstone bore the name Rev. John G. Tate. A new church was built on the site in 1898.
One day John dreamed a great dream which he was determined to make come true. It was to form a colony for Negroes somewhere in East Tennessee. In 1879 he traded the Tate farm for 600 acres of mountain land in Cumberland County which he felt would be ideal for his colony. So he moved there with his wife, Rosanne, and daughter, Hester, along with several other families from Clinton and a few from Morristown. He was disappointed that so few accompanied him and found more disappointment awaiting him there. Never having slavery in that area the people did not feel a sense of sympathy for the colonists and felt a strangeness in being around them. The environment seemed hostile so that Tate and his associates were uncomfortable. This, with the unproductiveness of the land, caused the colony to fail and John eventually came back to Clinton and Anderson County.
Aunt Priscilla and Little Lord Fauntleroy
Priscilla Whitson (known to nearly everyone as “Aunt Priscilla”) was born a slave in the Chesley Jarnigan family around 1827. Mr. Jarnigan gave her to his daughter, Mary, when she married Henry Harris of Dandridge. At her own request Priscilla was sold to the McNutts because she wished to marry a man who was slave in that family. She refugeed with them over the South after the war and later came back to Knoxville.
When the authoress Frances Hodgson and Dr. S.M. Burnett were married, Aunt Priscilla went to live with them at the corner of Cumberland Ave. and Henley St. She was fond of telling how she was nurse to Mrs. Burnett’s son, Lionel, saying she looked after the real Little Lord Fauntleroy while his mother put “dat sweet chile in a book.” Many times she would say that her only disappointment in life was that Mrs. Burnett did not put the “old black mammy in that book stead’n that French nurse.”
Aunt Priscilla traveled with the famous authoress seven months in Europe, looking after the children Lionel and Vivian. It is told that in London, when Mrs. Burnett’s carriage would happen to stop in the street, a crowd would immediately gather, staring into it. Instead of admiring the children, as was first supposed to be the case, the crowds were staring at Priscilla because a Negro in London was very uncommon.
Shortly after this, Priscilla and Henderson Whitson of Clinton were married. She lived in Clinton several years before her death, was well known and remembered as a handsome woman with unusual intelligence. She died around 1902 or 1903 and was buried in the graveyard behind Mt. Sinai Baptist Church. Her grave is unmarked and it is not known exactly which one it is.
Aunt Priscilla’s daughter, Jane, married a Martin and moved to Macon, Ga., where she resided on Chestnut St. She used to visit and keep in touch with the Clinton folk but has not been heard from in a long time and is presumed to be dead.
The Knoxville Journal & Tribune carried a notice of Aunt Priscilla’s death, saying, “The death of Priscilla Whitson removed one of the truest friends Little Lord Fauntleroy ever had.”