Bristol, Tennessee & Virginia
The town of Bristol was incorporated just five years before the US Civil War in 1856. The city's position across the Tennessee/Virginia state line, requires researching the records of two municipal and county governments.
In 1860, the African-American community in Sullivan County, TN consisted of 1084 enslaved people, or 8% of the population. Washington County, VA held significantly more people in slavery at 2584 individuals or 15.3% of the population.
According to author V.N. Phillips, "...early Bristol had a large slave population, unusually so for a small town." Most of the prominent families and the key founders of Bristol held people in bondage; Reverend James King, Joseph R. Anderson, Maston J. Ayers, William H. Trammel and Col. Samuel E. Goodson, just to name a few.
There was a significant Free Black population in Washington & Sullivan Counties. In 1860, 104 & 247 individuals were recorded in those counties, respectively.
After Emancipation, Black businesses slowly began to develop in Bristol with the majority being located in the "Blackbottom" area of downtown Bristol, Virginia. There were 11 Colored businesses listed in the 1896 - 1897 city directories, including a doctor and an attorney. By 1946, that number had increase to 27 listed professionals. Unfortunately, and similar to other cities in the region, the "Blackbottom" district was eventually razed through urban removal processes.
Through out the majority of the city's history, Jim Crow and segregation was official social and legal policy. In response, Bristol's Black residents maintained facilities for fellow travelers that were listed in the Green Book guides.
Educational, spiritual and social institutions were also developed by the communities on both sides of the state line. Most notably were the two African American high schools; Douglass School on the Virginia side and Tennessee's Slater School. After desegregation, these facilities fell into disuse. Fortunately, Slater has been converted into a community center and remains in use today.
The Lynching of Robert Clark, 1891
In support of and in cooperation local community members, we produced a short film detailing the extra judicial killing of Robert Clark in Bristol, Virginia. This film was produced in support of the efforts of the Bristol Remembrance Project and coalition work.
*film contains images of a lynching*
Bristol Residents Mentioned in The Negro and East Tennessee: 1913
Through the working partnerships with residents, the Bristol Public Library, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum & the YWCA of NE Tennessee & SW Virginia, we've produced a map of the late Black businesses of the city, detailing information from 1897 & 1936; the earliest available date & the height of the Black businesses in the city. Try it out below:
In partnership with the YWCA of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia, Bristol Public Library and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, The Bristol Community History Project is working with the Black communities of Sullivan County, Tennessee & Washington County, Virginia to fully document and make accessible the community's vast & complicated history.
View the Bristol Community Archives here: