Polk Curator
Thomas Price, curator with the James K. Polk Home & Museum in Columbia, speaks in front of Matilda Polk's replacement tombstone at a dedication Saturday, March 4, 2017, at Nashville City Cemetery.
(Photo: Andy Humbles / The Tennessean)

Three buried African-Americans at Nashville City Cemetery, two who were slaves of the 11th U.S. President James K. Polk, received replacement tombstones at their grave sites Saturday.

The replacement tombstones are part of an effort to recognize more African-Americans buried at Nashville City Cemetery.

“Right from the beginning we wanted to show this cemetery is not just a burial site for the rich, famous and white,” said Carol Kaplan, a past board member of the Nashville City Cemetery Association. “We felt like it was our job to bring them back and let people know about them. It’s almost emotional that these people deserved recognition.”

The Nashville City Cemetery Association is a nonprofit support group that funded the tombstones at about $500 each.

The President James K. Polk Home & Museum in Columbia collaborated on the new tombstones as Polk museum docent Zacharie Kinslow uncovered considerable detail on Elias Polk’s life.

“We had Elias Polk as a character in our living history tour several years ago and learned about him serving in the White House, and he became of great interest,” said Fletch Coke of the Nashville City Cemetery Association.

Elias Polk was born into slavery with the Polk family and at age 18 was sent to live with James and Sarah Polk when they married. For the next 25 years, Elias Polk worked closely with James Polk as he rose through the political landscape as a U.S. Congressman and Tennessee governor.

When James Polk was elected president of the United States in 1844, Elias Polk spent time in both Washington, D.C., and Tennessee doing various work for the Polks.

When James Polk died in 1849, three months after his term ended, Elias Polk became politically active himself as an advocate for the Democratic Party, working to create different African-American clubs. Elias Polk was appointed porter in the Tennessee Legislature in 1871 as a free man following the Civil War and to a similar post in 1876.

Dr. Herbert Lester from Clark Memorial United Methodist Church participated in the dedication. The church was originally Clark’s Chapel that held Elias Polk’s funeral service in 1887.

“It says that their lives mattered,” Lester said of the new tombstones lost to weather and time. “That they were more than just property.”

Elias Polk died in 1886, and his wife Mary Polk, who was 41 years younger than her husband, died in 1888.

Mary Polk, from New York, was believed to be Elias Polk’s third wife and married later in his life, Coke said.

Matilda Polk was 110-years-old when she died in 1849. She was sent from another family to the Polks in Columbia in 1824. Matilda was moved to the Polk home in Nashville after James Polk’s presidency, where she remained until her death and spent considerable time with Sarah Polk, according to research.

“They are names we’ve known about a long time, but with recent research we’ve been able to flesh out their lives a little more,” Thomas Price, curator for the Polk museum said.

There are approximately 22,000 people buried at Nashville City Cemetery, which includes about 6,000 African Americans.

The Nashville City Cemetery Association is generally able to replace about five per year, but in 2017 they hope to up that to 20 with additional funding, Coke said.

The Nashville City Cemetery Association does a living history tour, school tours, operates a website and holds a Memorial Day Dash annually that funded the tombstones.

Reach Andy Humbles at ahumbles@tennessean.com or 615-726-5939 and on Twitter @ AndyHumbles.

Polk Dedication Dr. Lester
Dr. Herbert Lester of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church spoke at a dedication Saturday, March 4, 2017, at
Nashville City Cemetery. Elias Polk, his wife Mary Polk and Matilda Polk have each received replacement tombstones
.
(Photo: Andy Humbles / The Tennessean)