Former slaves recognized in Nashville City Cemetery

(l-r) Members of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church participate in dedication program  Rev. Dr. Herbert Lester, Jr., current pastor and singer Paula Chavis. (photos by Wanda Clay)

(l-r) Members of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church participate in dedication program  Rev. Dr. Herbert Lester, Jr., current pastor and singer Paula Chavis. (photos by Wanda Clay)

The Nashville City Cemetery Association held a dedication program for the replacement of tombstones for three former slaves buried in the Nashville City Cemetery.

The dedication consisted of replacement headstones for Elias Polk, Mary Polk and Matilda Polk (two of whom were slaves of 11th U.S. President James K. Polk) received replacement tombstones at their gravesites on Saturday, March 4.

Elias Polk was born into slavery in 1806 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina in the same house as would be the future president, James K. Polk. He moved to Tennessee with the Polk family as an infant where they settled on a small farm in Maury County. When Elias turned 18 years old, he was sent to live with James and Sarah Polk upon their marrying.

Elias worked closely with James for the following 25 years. During that time, James Polk worked through the ranks of politics as a U.S. congressman and governor of Tennessee. In 1944, he became the president of the United States and Elias travelled to Washington, D.C. with him.

Following the death of President Polk in 1849, Elias remained at ‘Polk Place’ in Nashville with Sarah Polk. Shortly after the Civil War, he began his own political career becoming a strong conservative voice promoting the Democratic Party. During his tenure in politics, Elias worked to create many clubs for African Americans and was later appointed Porter in the Tennessee State Legislature in 1871 and a similar post in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1876.

Elias Pope died in December of 1886 in Washington, D.C. After his death his wife, Mary Polk, was left with a great amount of debt. As she wanted his body to be returned to Nashville, she solicited an ad in the newspaper to assist in helping to move his body from Washington. His body was returned by train and a funeral was held at Clark Memorial Chapel. He was then laid to rest in the Nashville City Cemetery on February 13, 1887. His wife remained in Nashville until her death on August 22, 1888. She was laid to rest next to him.

As deemed appropriate to this dedication, current senior pastor of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, Dr. Herbert Lester, Jr., gave words of praise during the ceremony.

“These tombstones are more than just property,” said Lester.

Also representative of the church, hymns were sung by Paula Chavis, who is also a member of Clark Memorial UMC.

During the ceremony, attendees then moved to the gravesite of Matilda Polk, also known as ‘Aunt Matilda.’ Matilda was also born into slavery in Rutherford County, Tennessee. She lived with the Childress family outside of Murfreesboro until 1824. She went to live with James and Sarah Childress Polk in Columbia.

Following the Polk’s tenure in the White House, Matilda was moved to ‘Polk Place’ in Nashville for the remainder of her 110 years of life! Following her death in 1849, she was also buried in Nashville City Cemetery.

Other events on the program included a ‘welcome’ by James A. Hoobler, president of the Nashville City Cemetery Association; Zach Zinslow of James K. Polk Home and Museum, speaking on ‘The Life of Elias Polk’; and Thomas Price, curator and president of James K. Polk Home and Museum, speaking on ‘The Life of Matilda Polk.’

The Dedication of Replacement tombstones for Elias, Mary and Matilda Polk was made possible by the Nashville City Cemetery Association, Metro Historical Commission, the James K. Polk Memorial Association and Clark Memorial United Methodist Church.