Tennessee Mountain Stories

Celina, Tennessee and The Free Hill Community

Sitting in the heart of Clay County, Celina is today the jumping off point for recreational opportunities at Dale Hollow Lake.  Since the Dale Hollow Dam was not completed until 1943, our historic publication wouldn’t have realized the effect of the project on the Celina area.  The information in this article is simply informative with little of the marketing that we’ve seen for other towns in the Upper Cumberlands.

The booklet gives a very brief history with a passing note to the “Free Hills” in the background.  After my realization and historical confession last week, I was curious to learn more about that community and I find it so fascinating that I want to share a little about it even though it isn’t really covered in the March of Progress.

According to www.FreeHillCommunity.org  and the historical marker, a North Carolina slave holder named Virginia Hill bought 2,000 acres of hilly land in the early 1800’s.  Located five miles northeast of Celina, she gave this land to her slaves when she freed them then she left the area.  There is a legend that she left her own multi-racial children among the group.

Free Hills thrived for a time, having “two grocery stores, three clubs, two eateries, two churches, a school, skilled artisans, and three hundred residents.”  Like so many rural Appalachian towns, Free Hills has declined since the 1960’s as residents left farming for more prosperous jobs in urban areas.

As history so often does, this story leaves me with more questions than answers!  Don’t you wonder what ever became of Miss Hill?  If the legend is to be believed, she birthed four children by a man who most certainly was a slave and probably one owned by her father.  She must have loved him a great deal as she surely gave up any possibility of a normal life yet she went to great lengths to try to give her own children as much normality as possible by providing this freedom.  I wonder how old she was when she did this and I wonder where she went when she left.  Do you imagine she went back to the North Carolina plantation now devoid of its workforce and still a century before the Civil Rights movement that would begin to move people of color into every phase of American life.

And what of these people she left behind?  Carving farms and creating a life in the hills of Tennessee would be vastly different than working on an established plantation.  I wonder if they relished their freedom so much that they never complained?  Or did they, like the Children of Israel cry out to the spirit of their benefactor that she had brought them to this place to die.  Did they think it would have been better to remain slaves on Mr. Hill’s plantation?

For us twenty-first century Americans who have never known really any restrictions on our freedom, it’s hard to read the biblical account of the Exodus and really appreciate the complaints.  I always think that surely freedom is worthwhile even in really bad conditions.  But when I think about the difference in working an established plantation (and some of the slaves probably never saw the fields for they were ‘house slaves’) and trying to clear a Tennessee hillside, grubbing out stumps with nothing more than a broad axe and a mule and trying to nurse a crop out of soil that would rather erode into the river than nourish your family.  It must have been easy to look back fondly on their days of bondage.

Oh my, there’s a story in this!