This story begins with a building.
But it is about more than bricks and wood. It is the story of the birth and growing pains of a town and a state and a nation. Made from struggles, wounds, and impossible decisions, redemption, resilience in the face of hopelessness, and compassion—this is a story about what it means to be American, and what it means to be human. This is Your Story, and this is Our Story.
And this story begins with a building.
In 1823, a fraternity of men in Franklin, Tennessee asked the state for money from the lottery to build a hall for meetings. The state agreed, and construction of the Franklin Masonic Hall began on Cameron Street, south of Main, in the heart of Franklin. Workers—free and enslaved—labored for the next three years to finish the building. Enslaved men, women, and children molded the Hall’s bricks by hand, leaving behind visible fingerprints.
The Hall was the pride of Franklin. It was the town’s first three story building, was built of stately red brick, and introduced a new architectural style to the region, the Gothic revival. The fraternity, Hiram Lodge No. 7, used the second and third floors for its meetings, but the first floor was a center of Franklin community life. Franklin was still a young town. Many of the churches did not yet have buildings, and they flocked to the newly-finished Hall to meet on Sundays. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Baptist church, the Methodist church, and the Church of Christ all met in the building during this period. Traveling evangelists including Tolbert Fanning and Alexander Campbell preached on the first floor. The first floor was also used by other groups like the Grange (an agricultural club), the Williamson County Fair for its jams and jellies contest, and even a glass-blowing exhibition by a Mr. Mooney.
In August 1830, a meeting took place at the Hall that would impact thousands of people. President Andrew Jackson invited the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations of Mississippi and Alabama to Franklin to discuss moving west to Oklahoma. The Choctaw did not come, but a delegation of twenty Chickasaw leaders arrived in Franklin on August 20th. This was the first discussion of removal with an Indian nation following the U.S. Government’s passage of the Indian Removal Act.
President Jackson was anxious that it succeed—so anxious that he traveled from Washington, D.C. to Franklin for the talks. Leading the U.S. Government’s delegation were Secretary of War John Eaton and General John Coffee. At first, Jackson remained in the shadows. Initial discussions took place at the Presbyterian Church, and the groups did not reach an agreement. At the request of the Chickasaw delegates, Jackson met them at the Masonic Hall, where they agreed to sign a removal treaty, contingent upon finding
suitable lands in Oklahoma.
On August 31st, the two parties signed the Treaty of Franklin, beginning a process that ultimately removed the Chickasaw and most remaining American Indians from the Southeast. This void opened up the Deep South for white settlement and the vast expansion of slavery in America, aggravating among the states the volatile issue of slavery.
The Civil War
Over the next thirty years, Franklin grew, and so did the Masonic Hall. In 1856, the fraternity enlarged the Hall and papered, painted, and installed new carpets throughout the building. The following year, a large new courthouse was built in Franklin’s town square. Williamson County became known for its rolling green hills and fertile farmland, with medium-sized farms that grew a variety of crops and raised pigs and livestock. Many of these landowners also possessed larger, cash crop plantations in the Deep South. From these cotton, sugar, and rice plantations, manned by an enslaved workforce, came the bulk of their wealth.
On the eve of the Civil War, Freemasons across America worked with each other to try to prevent war. When diplomatic attempts failed, the Tennessee Grand Lodge implemented special dispensation, which allowed men to become Masons on the fast-track. Masons across lines felt that their brotherhood transcended political differences and that they had an obligation to help, not harm, a brother in need. Nearly forty men joined Hiram Lodge No. 7 under dispensation before going off to fight. Brothers Moscow and Tod Carter (pictured right) were two of them.
At the war’s start, Franklin was considered a wealthy secessionist town, though a part of the population held fast to pro-Union sentiments. Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy, and its capital was the first to fall to U.S. military forces in February 1862. From Nashville, the U.S. Army marched into and subdued Franklin and other Middle Tennessee towns. In Franklin, troops occupied the Masonic Hall and other public buildings, began constructing a fort, and settled in. Regiment after regiment moved through the Masonic Hall, using it as a quartermaster’s office, barracks, and a hospital. Many of the soldiers left their marks on the building, scratching or writing their names, regiments, and various symbols on the walls of the building.
Franklin experienced several battles and skirmishes, the largest on November 30, 1864. Federal and Confederate forces raced from Atlanta to reinforce Nashville. Federal troops reached Franklin early in the morning on November 30th and found heavy rains had raised the Harpeth River, destroying the bridges. The U.S. Army, with its train of supply wagons, was stuck in Franklin. With pontoon bridges from Nashville not yet arrived, the Union Army dug in for a fight. The Confederate army attacked around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, just before sunset, and fighting continued for several hours in the dark. At its end, the Federal army withdrew to Nashville, leaving Franklin occupied by a broken Confederate army, which took over the Masonic Hall for a hospital. Two and a half weeks later, after the Confederate rout at Nashville, Federal forces retook Franklin and the Masonic Hall and remained there through 1865, with various groups including the United States Colored Troops garrisoning the building.
In the summer of 1865, the Masons of Hiram 7 regained access to the Masonic Hall. Reentering the building, the men were horrified at its condition. “There were very strong evidences that it had been occupied by troops,” James Hanner, a Mason, said. Hanner went into detail concerning the destruction of the Hall, saying,
“It was completely; the windows, sash, blinds, doors, shutters, carpets, papering and plastering were practically destroyed. All lighting and heating facilities were gone. The building was thoroughly dilapidated. The Hall was absolutely useless for occupancy by a Masonic body. The hall had carpets, the window curtains, and the walls were papered a short time before the war, all these furnishing being comparatively new at the outbreak of the war. The paraphernalia, spoken of in my former examination, and which was destroyed, had been recently purchased.”
In response to the damages, the Trustees of Hiram Lodge No. 7 sued the U.S. Government for damages. It would take until 1916 for them to receive money.
Reconstruction and the Franklin Riot
The Civil War obliterated Middle Tennessee’s existing social structure, and, with the war’s end, people scrambled to dictate how it would be rebuilt. A major bone of contention during Reconstruction was voting rights. Tennessee abolished slavery in February 1865, and in June of that year, Confederates and Confederate sympathizers lost the right to vote for five years. By the summer of 1867, African American males were enfranchised citizens in Tennessee. Their first election would be for state offices on August 3, 1867. According to Captain Walsh of the Freedmen’s Bureau: “Three-quarters of the white citizens are disfranchised…The blacks possess the whole political power of the portion of the State.”
In 1860, Williamson County had the third highest black population, proportionally, of Tennessee counties. Blacks outnumbered whites roughly twelve to eleven. In Franklin, a vibrant African American neighborhood developed after the war along 1st and 2nd avenues. Two churches – Shorter Chapel and the Methodist Church, both on 2nd Avenue and Church Street – were the anchors of the community, but freedmen were also attracted to the neighborhood because of proximity to railroad and sawmill jobs.
Politicians hit Franklin hard on their campaign trails that summer. The mood in the town grew tense as the summer of 1867 progressed. On July 6th, violence erupted in Franklin’s town square. The Union League—a group promoting rights for blacks, which had high membership from US military veterans—was fired upon by a group of Conservatives, which contained many ex-Confederates as well as most of the leadership for Williamson County’s Ku Klux Klan, led by John House. The night of the riot, Masons were meeting on the third floor of the Hall, and they shuttered their meeting. Several months later, they erected an iron fence around the front of the building, stanchioning the Masonic Hall off from the neighborhood surrounding it.
The Franklin Riot was one event in a year and half long campaign of terrorism throughout Middle Tennessee to suppress the black vote. By the end of 1868, the Union League ceased to exist in Middle Tennessee, and Tennessee was well on its way to suppressing black votes for decades to come.