‘Story of a family’: How developers are restoring an African American home back to life


Meggan McCarthy looked over a piece of paper in her hand. 

The first-year Ph.D. student from Middle Tennessee State University is one of the many who will chronicle the contents of the John Carothers House, a farm home built in the 1930s by an African American family in Williamson County. 

On the table in front of her sat piles of paper, newspaper clippings, an old camera and letters among the Carothers and Kinnard families, who both occupied the house during the last 80 years. She and other students from MTSU and Columbia State Community College are documenting its contents and organizing what they find. 

“It’s amazing how all of this paper brings someone to life,” McCarthy said. “We are definitely looking for what’s interesting, but also what tells the story of this family.” 

The house has sat vacant for years on Huffines Ridge. As a result, the inside of the home was turned upside down as animals and vandals strewed the contents onto the floor. Stone on the outside of the house suffered purple graffiti, and some of the glass in the windows has shattered. 

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The John Carothers House restoration is part of a two-year development project from company GCI, which will put a hotel and apartments on the 20-plus-acre property. But for Evan Vlaeminck, vice president of development, the task is less about the excitement of the hotel and apartments. 

Instead, Vlaeminck has found the property on the National Register of Historic Places a treasure trove of opportunity.

“I have always been a history nerd since the second grade,” Vlaeminck said. “But my company has never done anything like this before.” 

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The story of the house

In 1937, John Carothers used limestone from his property to construct the house that still stands today. 

Documents submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior show that he purchased the property in 1933 for $25 per acre. With the help of his son Ezeal Carothers, the two built the 1½-story home.

The Carothers family gardened and farmed the land beside the home for wheat, tobacco and hay. Cows and chickens lived there as well. Ezeal Carothers also farmed 355 acres across the road owned by a Nashville businessman.

“The Carothers House is a good example of a local adaptation of stock building plans using native materials,” historians wrote in the 1989 application to add the home to the National Register of Historic Places. “The Carothers House was the first stone house to be constructed by John Carothers, who later built two other stone houses from stock architectural plans. One house is now demolished and the other, located on Jordan Road and built circa 1941, is slated for demolition. All three houses were constructed from limestone quarried from the Carothers farm by Ezeal Carothers.”

Historians also said the home should go on the registry to preserve African American history in Williamson County. The property provided an example of farm life before the civil rights movement. 

“Black sharecropper-tenant farmers were seldom able to escape the debt owed to the white landowners and to acquire their own farms,” Tennessee Historic Preservation Specialist Elizabeth A. Straw wrote in the application. “In Tennessee, three-fourths of all blacks lived in rural areas and were primarily farmers. Housing for rural black farmers consisted mainly of small cabins constructed loosely of logs or slab boards. Windows rarely had glass or screens and were usually covered with wooden shutters.”

Phases of the project

Restoring the house and developing the land will be a two-year process. 

Physically fixing the home will take about six months and will happen concurrently toward the end of the development of the apartments and hotel. Once it’s finished, the City of Franklin will maintain the house and use it as a community center and gateway to mountain bike trails on the property.

In the meantime, students from the two schools will go through the furniture, documents and other artifacts of the house to build a history of the family and the land. 

Standing in the front yard, MTSU Center for Historic Preservation field director Savannah Grandey held a leather-bound ledger from 1895. It’s one of the oldest pieces discovered in the house. 

“A lot of what we are finding is more modern, but we are finding old photos of the house and the property,” Grandey said. “We’ve found a lot of old checks, one even paying for a mule. But we are going through four or five generations of people who are from this family.”

The two colleges will divide up the time eras. Columbia State associate professor Thomas Flagel said the research had only just begun for his students. He noted stories like these were proving the most valuable to the community. 

“These are the Williamson County stories that need to be told,” Flagel said. “I feel like the thing that’s great with this project is that certified and trained professionals are documenting this history. This is a great step in the right direction to talk about stories that may have otherwise been erased in Franklin.”

Join the conversation about preservation in Franklin on the new Franklin Hub.Reach Emily West at erwest@tennessean.com, at 615-613-1380, or on Twitter at @emwest22.

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