Nashville Zoo sits on land that has a rich and intriguing history. From an original land grant in 1786 to today, many people have inhabited this site. Michael Dunn, his son-in-law Lee Shute and grandson William Dickson Shute, all owners of the land, were all slave owners. . From 1810 until the time of Emancipation, around 33 enslaved individuals lived, worked and died at Grassmere.
Before Nashville Zoo began management of the property, it was owned by the Cumberland Science Museum (today known as the Adventure Science Center). In 1989, the museum partnered with Vanderbilt University to carry out several archaeological digs on the property. One of the projects revealed a cemetery site, which was suspected to be a cemetery of the enslaved individuals who lived on the property. The site was marked and left undisturbed as the museum began development of Grassmere Wildlife Park. The site was again left alone when Nashville Zoo moved to Grassmere in 1997, and the Zoo’s entrance and parking areas were built around it. But as our popularity and attendance soared, Zoo administrators knew an expansion in that area was necessary.
In 2013, the Zoo contacted the state archaeologist to determine if, and how, a cemetery could be moved. After receiving approval from state and city officials, plans were made to relocate the cemetery to the Grassmere Historic Farm, where it could be properly interpreted as part of the Zoo’s rich history.
A team of archaeologists from TRC Solutions began work on the site in February 2014 and discovered 19 graves containing 20 individuals that were carefully and professionally exhumed. Funding provided by the Metro Nashville Historic Commission Foundation, Historic Nashville Inc. and Nashville Zoo allowed for DNA testing of some of the individual remains. This testing showed the individuals to have been buried between 1830 and 1860, and to be of African descent, meaning the cemetery was likely one of enslaved people living at Grassmere. In June, archaeologists re-interred the remains at a new cemetery site at the historic farm near the existing family cemetery.
As we honor and remember these individuals, we invite the public to join us, along with local and state history representatives and local clergy, for a Cemetery Dedication Ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 22 at 1 p.m. at Grassmere Historic Farm. Visitors will be expected to pay daily admission or use their Zoo membership in order to attend the ceremony.
Saturday, November 22 at 1 pm
Historic Home at Nashville Zoo