First settled by freedmen during Reconstruction, the community of Promise Land, north of Charlotte in Dickson County, sheltered its residents from the Jim Crow South, offering them protection from the strife and bigotry surrounding them. At Promise Land, freedmen were the only residents, creating a world they could control.
Ancestors of the founders of Promise Land were brought to Dickson County early in the county’s settlement as slave laborers for farms and for the iron works at Cumberland Furnace, a major antebellum iron operation. Ironmaster Montgomery Bell, who began his operations in 1804, became one of the South’s major users of industrial slavery. In 1825, Bell sold his property to Anthony Vanleer, who continued to operate the iron plantation, heavily dependent on slave labor, through the initial years of the Civil War. With Emancipation, African Americans in Dickson County left in droves, many finding new opportunities in urban areas such as Nashville. The founders of Promise Land, however, chose to stay. They chose Promise Land’s location because it was available and affordable, certainly, but the village was also central to the neighboring mostly white communities where they could work. The earlier history and persistence of industrial work in Dickson County meant that African Americans there had different opportunities than in most of the South.
Soon after the end of the war, around 1870, the Bowen, Redden, and Vanleer African American families purchased one thousand acres in the vicinity of Promise Land. When Arch and John Nesbitt left the nearby community of Vanleer in 1880 or 1881, they used their war pensions to purchase a plot of land less than one mile away from these initial purchases. Though the origin of the community’s name is unknown, one possibility is that the families had finally claimed the land the federal government had promised them; another is that the location was viewed as one of more promise than the initial settlement around 1870.
In 1881, what had been a hamlet of families began to organize as a community when the Nesbitt brothers donated land for a church and school, forming Promise Land’s new heart. By 1900, the families had founded a Baptist church, a Methodist church, and an African Methodist Episcopal congregation; the Baptists and AMEs shared their worship space, so there were only two church buildings. Sandwiched between the two (only the Methodist church survives) was Promise Land School, with the front section of this historic building dating to 1899. In addition to the community buildings of the school and two churches, Promise Land contained several stores, creating a largely self-contained community.
The three churches of Promise Land were important community institutions. Members often visited the other congregations, particularly on special occasions. During Promise Land’s heyday, the most popular events were the all-night singings organized by Theo Edmondson, father of Bernice Herd and Helen Hughes. Though the concerts attracted outsiders of both races, none of the Promise Land residents recalled any racial hostility during the performances. In fact, Hughes recalled two white men who came because they had befriended her father and enjoyed singing with him. Because the whites came to the blacks, there was no segregation those nights. So many audience members enjoyed hearing Herd and other girls her age sing “Touch Me, Lord Jesus” that Edmondson formed the Promise Land Singers, which toured Middle Tennessee and even had a regular slot on WVOL Radio in Nashville.
Parents in Promise Land stressed education, and records show that this emphasis began as soon as the community began around 1880 and led to the school’s construction and expansion over the years. The highest enrollment at the school occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, and numbers peaked in 1905 at ninety-three students. During these crowded years, the two-room building was too small to house all the pupils, so the children divided by grade and age. Sometimes the younger children remained in the school while the older students went to Mt. Olive Baptist Church for their lessons; other semesters, one group came to classes in the morning while the others came after lunch.
A major improvement to school services came around 1935, when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) worked with the local board of education and the African American community to add a cafeteria and kitchen wing.
As was true across the South, residents of Promise Land began leaving the area during the Great Migration of the 1910s, and the flow continued throughout the coming six decades, draining the village of its population. As families moved and school enrollment dwindled, at some points during the 1940s and 1950s fewer than thirty students enrolled in classes. Beginning in 1956, the seventh and eighth graders from Promise Land went to Dickson for classes, and in the spring of 1957 the county board of education closed the community’s school, consolidating the Promise Land School with Cedar Grove Elementary in Charlotte. Even after the end of classes, the building remained a center of community life. During the annual homecomings hosted by the different churches, the congregations served meals in the structure. Over time, residents remade the building into a community center, which it still is today.
The annual homecoming tradition continues as the Promise Land Community Festival occurs the first weekend of June each year and draws visitors from around the nation and even the world as some descendents have taken jobs in both Germany and Japan. Through these occasions, many of the residents who had moved away from the village have begun to reinvest in its life, some by coming back for the annual visits and others by restoring their families’ properties in preparation of a return. Thus, after several decades of neglect, the community has been revitalized by becoming the locus from which networks of kinship spread.