Putnam County: Not as green as it looked
By GEOFF DAVIDIAN
of the Putnam Pit
COOKEVILLE, TENN. (August 29, 2021) – Phillip Mullins, serving live without parole for the 1999 murder of 87-year-old Vernell Dixon, was born in Putnam County, Tenn., in 1960, but his family had been rooted in Middle Tennessee since before the Civil War.
By 1850, Tennessee had evolved into a major slave-exporting state. In the 1860 census, Phillip’s great grandfather, Andrew, born a slave in 1835, would have been marked among the Rutherford County population as “mulatto.” Andrew’s wife, Catherine, would have been listed as black. Nearly one of every four residents of the Volunteer State was considered property. Andrew and Catherine were among the 275,719 Tennesseans who were classified in the 1860 census as “slave population”
Andrew and Catherine had a son named John, and as was typical in that era, children born to slave mothers were automatically enslaved upon birth. Rutherford County had the second largest slave population in the state because it had become a slave-trading center, with frequent auctions. When the Tennessee legislature abolished slavery in Tennessee on February 22, 1865, like many freed slaves, Andrew and Catherine stayed in Murfreesboro, the Rutherford County seat, having neither someplace to go nor money to get there.
In the early years, Murfreesboro was mainly an agricultural community, with corn, cotton, and tobacco the main crops. By 1853, the Murfreesboro area was home to three colleges and several academies, prompting it to be called the "Athens of Tennessee" by a visiting religious reporter. Although education suffered from the military occupation and the trauma of the Civil War, by the early 1900s it began to regain momentum.
Like many freed slaves, they continued to work for white families and farmers, picking their crops, cooking, raising their children, making bricks, or washing clothes around the county seat, Murphreesboro.
Although slavery was outlawed, or because of it, on Dec. 24, 1865, a handful of Confederate veterans gathered in Pulaski, Tennessee – about 76 miles from Rutherford County -- and founded the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan was “a vigilante group mobilizing a campaign of violence and terror against the progress of Reconstruction,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
“As the group gained members from all strata of Southern white society, they used violent intimidation to prevent black people – and any white people who supported Reconstruction – from voting and holding political office.”
The influence of the Klan grew to surrounding states. According to the SPLC’s Klanwatch Project:
In April 1867, a call went out for all known Ku Klux Klan chapters or dens to send representatives to Nashville, Tenn., for a meeting that would plan, among other things, the Klan response to the new federal reconstruction policy.
Throughout the summer and fall, the Klan had steadily become more violent. Thousands of the white citizens of west Tennessee, northern Alabama and part of Georgia and Mississippi had by this time joined the Klan. Many now viewed the escalating violence with growing alarm — not necessarily because they had sympathy for the victims, but because the night riding was getting out of their control. Anyone could put on a sheet and a mask and ride into the night to commit assault, robbery, rape, arson or murder. The Klan was increasingly used as a cover for common crime or for personal revenge.
In an effort to maintain white hegemonic control of government, the Klan, joined by other white Southerners, engaged in a violent campaign of deadly voter intimidation during the 1868 presidential election. From Arkansas to Georgia, thousands of black people were killed. Similar campaigns of lynchings, tar-and-featherings, rapes, and other violent attacks on those challenging white supremacy became a hallmark of the Klan.
Seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, young John Mullins left his family in Murfreesboro and set out by foot for Putnam County, 80 miles to the northeast, looking for opportunity and the blessings of liberty – and a wife. He settled in Algood, in Putnam County, where John married a woman named Altha and they started a family.
Although abolition was a primary reason for Putnam County’s passion for the Confederate ideals a decade earlier, slavery was not a deep part of Putnam County economic life. Unlike Rutherford County, Putnam County land was unfit for many crops and farmers were too poor to own slaves.
Created on February 2, 1842 by the state legislature in the rolling-green hills of the Upper Cumberland, the law establishing Putnam County was declared unconstitutional just three years later. Two adjacent counties had sought an injunction claiming the act encroached on their jurisdiction so much that their areas were below constitutional limits. Putnam County didn’t answer the allegations and the judge dissolved it. Tennessee lawmakers had another and more successful go at it in 1854, when Putnam County got begotten again in the Bible Belt. But seven years later, the historical wistfulness and ancestor worship of their revolutionary forefathers notwithstanding, or maybe because of them, Putnam County joined the majority of Tennessee voters and overwhelmingly decided to secede from the Union to preserve slavery.
By the time John arrived in Algood, Putnam County “had thirty-seven (37) public schools for whites and three (3) for blacks.,” according to the City of Algood.
Even today, Putnam County is among the least diverse places in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Statewide, 78.4 percent of the population was white, while in Putnam County, whites made up 93.3 percent. Tennessee is 17.1 percent black, but the black population of Putnam County is 2.4 percent.
As recently as the 1960s, due to segregation then in effect, black students had to go to Cookeville to attend Darwin High School if they wished to pursue more than an elementary school education. Ironically, Cookeville is just 78 miles from Dayton, Tenn., home of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, which was an unsuccessful challenge to Tennessee’s ban on teaching evolution in public schools.