Lessons from butterflies at former president’s plantation


Tons of tiny butterflies that some would see as moths swarmed around me as I walked on grounds that once housed slaves at a long-gone president’s homestead just outside Nashville.

The Hermitage House, once a 1,000-acre self-sustained plantation, and its grounds are beautifully preserved.

I thought about this as the butterflies flickered around us and narrators read off the names of the people owned by Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president.

Betty and her son Alfred, George, Cancer, Mary, Reuben, Davis, Old Ned, Dick, Grace….

Jackson owned as many as 150 lives at one time. The Hermitage estimates that his family owned as many as 300 slaves in the 66 years since Jackson bought his first person in 1794.

Since the 1970s, archaeologists have uncovered more than 800,000 artifacts that remind us that they lived.

One thing was clear as I walked around the slave quarters at Jackson’s Hermitage after a tour of his house: not all lives mattered.

Certainly not those slave lives.

They were not lives in the minds of the law or society.

They were moths and not butterflies.

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Andrew Jackson styled himself as a fearless defender of the common people, the warrior-leader of an ill-treated population.

They were enslaved and subjected to beatings if they tried to run or expressed an opinion.

An audio tour narrator told of a slave woman whipped after sassing Jackson’s wife, Rachel.

The president thought the slave was asking for it.

Nearly 20 U.S. presidents owned slaves. Some freed them in their wills. Jackson did not.

Why would he? Black lives didn’t matter.

Today, the nation debates in homes and in streets whether black lives matter now.

It is a hard subject, especially considering a history that still impacts us hundreds of years later as we walk around the greatest country in the world.

The Hermitage thankfully recognizes Jackson’s warts and the lives of his slaves.

The whole experience reminded me of the night I cried with a friend a few months back while her musician boyfriend played cover from the 1980s on the stage.

She is white and her biracial son is considered black to most of the world.

He’s a teenager and does what teenagers do. He ran into a little trouble with police.

My friend was looking for advice. I was compelled to tell her to make him more afraid.

The black people who lived at the Hermitage knew the consequences of not knowing their place.

Like many black people, I was raised with that legacy of fear in my DNA.

And I think of the issues we still face today.

The vast majority of police officers are there to protect and serve all. But right or wrong, the thought that one of them or anyone else could see you as a moth and not a butterfly is there.

The thought that all lives don’t matter is truly a sad one.


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