Nolensville’s largest Black farm owning families recognized

Pictured front row (l to r): Hillary N. Ballard, Deborah E. Bass; back row (l to r): Valeri Otey Nellis, Velma Dennis Otey, Helen Copeland Hill, Elizabeth Harris, Charles Drew, Sandi D. Bass, RayAnn Dennis and La Donna Copeland.            photo: Elanna ‘Gabbi’ Nellis

Pictured front row (l to r): Hillary N. Ballard, Deborah E. Bass; back row (l to r): Valeri Otey Nellis, Velma Dennis Otey, Helen Copeland Hill, Elizabeth Harris, Charles Drew, Sandi D. Bass, RayAnn Dennis and La Donna Copeland. photo: Elanna ‘Gabbi’ Nellis

Following ‘legalized slavery’ from 1619 to 1865, many enterprising Black families were able to acquire large track of farmland throughout the south. Nolensville Road in Nashville is rich with African American families who accomplished an amazing accumulation of large farms and tracks of land. Their family farms and land holding along Nolensville Pike began in earnest south of Old Hickory Blvd.

Most of these extended families were interconnected and included the Maxwells whose descendants still operate the only Black produce stall in Metro Nashville’s Farmer’s Market, along with Maxwell’s Produce Market in Providence, Tenn. Rev. Dr. H. Bruce Maxwell, pastor of Lake Providence MB Church is also a descendant. His father was one of the initiators of the County School Desegregation suit. Another family, the Ruckers, owned and operated one of the largest dairy farms in middle Tennessee off the Nolensville corridor. The area was also the location of The Sunset Park where Black churches, organizations and families would drive out for picnics and outings. Some other family names in the area were the Armstrongs, the Bransfords, the Youngs, the Thorntons, the McClains and the Copelands.

“Observing what our ancestors made happen should encourage us, and our coming generations to renew our hearts, minds and finances in such a way that we accomplish again what our great ancestors achieved,” said Rev. Inman Otey of Zion New Jerusalem Church and Ministry. “We can do this by raising-up, studying and honoring our ancestor’s work and by recognizing what our current extended families are contributing. Unfortunately, more than 13.5 million acres of Black owned farmland in the South has been lost since the beginning of the 1900s, just as most of the originally Black owned farmlands around the Providence-Nolensville Road area was sold or lost. Thanks be to God, however, there are descendants who are alive and well who are making noteworthy contributions to the Nashville area, the nation and internationally. This is true of the Minnie Young Copeland and Lee Copeland family whose descendants we honor and recognize today.”

Christine Copeland was born in Nolensville, Tenn. on the farm owned by Lee Copeland and Minnie Young Copeland. She moved to Nashville and married Edward Henry Bass, a lifetime Red Cap with the L&N Railroad. Christine, an entrepreneur, opened Bass’s Beauty Shop. She also had a passion for fashion. This sense of business, beauty and fashion manifested itself in her two daughters, Deborah and Sandi Bass. Deborah co-founded two businesses, one in Los Angeles, Calif., ‘Plant Place,’ and one in Nashville, ‘Studs and Stones.’ She then worked her way up the corporate ladder and became one of Nashville’s first Black directors of Human Resources at Service Merchandise. Sandi Bass has traveled the world and walked the (modeling) runways in Paris, Milan, Rome, Tokyo, and New York blazing trails in the fashion and modeling profession. She was discovered by Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy and modeled for top designers including Valentino, Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld and Fendi.

Eugene Copeland, a descendant of Rosa Copeland McCall and Walter Copeland, served two tours of duty in the Armed Services and had successful careers with Avco Aeronautics and the Yellow Freight Company.
Descendant of Thornton Copeland and Annie Mai were Martha Pearl McClain and Earnest McClain whose children are James Wesley, Donald Ray and Maurice who is a teacher in the Jackson, Tenn. School System.
Descendants of Thornton Copeland and Anneice Gooch included: Elizabeth Gooch Dennis and Mary Estelle Gooch.

Children of Elizabeth Gooch Dennis included William Dennis (Calif.) who owned and operated a neighborhood store before joining the SafeWay Store Corp. Over time he earned the manager’s position (the first Black) of the largest supermarket in L.A.; Velma Dennis Otey, who served 33 years as an English teacher in the Metro Nashville Middle Schools; Joyace Dennis Peoples (Conn.), a math teacher; Sheila Dennis William, a retired physical education and dance instructor with the Detroit School System; Carlotta Dennis Ballard, a retired librarian with the Louisville, Ky. School System; Pamela Dennis Henderson (deceased); and Ewania Dennis (deceased).

Located at 2223 Morena Street, the Zion New Jerusalem Church meets on the first and third Sundays of each month beginning with a brunch at 11:30 am. Rev. Inman E. Otey, Sr., pastor, can be reached at 615-579-6461; or email minotey@comcast.net