Only a rare 1800s woman could stay independent

The Goodwood Plantation Home.
The Goodwood Plantation Home.

Editor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.

Bartlett-Sesq-logo-SMALL-WEAmerican women in the 1800s had no legal existence of their own and were dependent on men. For the most part, they could not enter into contracts, inherit property or money and had no legal recourse. But some women did their best to maintain a degree of autonomy. Mary Ann Blackwell (nee Taylor) was one of those women.

Mary Ann Taylor was born on May 5, 1809, to Joseph Taylor (1773-1838) and Elizabeth Willis Taylor (1777-1835) in Granville County, N.C. She moved with her family to a farm in Whiteville in Hardeman County, Tenn. There she married Edward Philpott (1807-1838) on May 5, 1829. They had one son, who died from injuries sustained in an accident in 1833. Her husband died in 1838, and for several years afterward she managed her own farm with the assistance of an overseer. She had inherited land from her husband and slaves from her parents. This farm was quite profitable, and she averaged $4,000 a year on her cotton crop.

Colonel John Blackwell (1797-1860) was a son of John Byars Blackwell and Frances Maston Blackwell, and a sister of Martha, wife of Thomas Bartlett. The Blackwell and Bartlett families were neighbors in Robertson County, in middle Tennessee. John Blackwell and Gabriel Bartlett were first cousins. About 1819 the Blackwells moved to Montgomery County, Ala., and later two of their sons, John and Nicholas, moved on to Fayette County, Tenn. There in 1829 John married Mary Philpott, a sister of Edward Philpott. Mary died childless, date unknown. John Blackwell came to Shelby County in the early 1840s and was one of the founders of Prosperity Baptist Church (now Bartlett Baptist). In the early 1850s John Blackwell contracted with the Memphis and Somerville Turnpike Company. He built a levee and bridge at Raleigh over the Wolf River, and laid a road from Raleigh through Jessamine (now Bartlett) on to Tollgate Cemetery (just east of Germantown Road).

blackwell1of2-w-072816On Jan. 18, 1843, John Blackwell married Mary Ann Taylor Philpott. A marriage contract was drawn up on the date of their marriage where it was agreed that her personal estate would not be liable for any debts he might incur. Earlier in January 1843 John Blackwell had purchased 971 acres of land on the Memphis to Somerville stage road in Shelby County (near present-day Shelby Center in Bartlett) from the executors of Joseph Cotton. Cotton had named his farm “my Goodwood plantation” and had the reputation of having one of the best farms in the county. So at their marriage, John owned a farm in Shelby County and Mary Ann owned a farm in Fayette County, on the Hardeman County line. They lived on the Fayette County farm. Both farms prospered and in 1854 the Blackwells purchased a 452.5-acre farm across the road from Goodwood from Major Gabriel Bartlett.

John wanted Mary Ann to sell her farm, where they lived in Fayette County, and move to Goodwood in Shelby County. She would not do so until his first cousin and her nephew-in-law, Gabriel Bartlett, agreed to serve as trustee in a legal agreement between them. Having agreed it was to their mutual benefit to sell her Fayette farm, they sold the farm in December 1854.

The agreement read: “Now therefore it is agreed by and between the contracting parties to this agreement that the said Mary A. hereby accept a vested right in the Goodwood plantation of the said John Blackwell her husband in Shelby County, Tennessee; to the amount of four thousand, six hundred dollars which said vested right he the said John Blackwell hereby makes ad conveys and confirms unto the said G. M. Bartlett in trust for the said Mary A. and for her own proper use and benefit during her natural life as fully to all intents and purposes as she might have enjoyed her own lands in Fayette and Hardeman counties, and should she die before John Blackwell he would to pay her estate $4,600 without interest and if she outlived him, she would have possession of the Goodwood place for her lifetime and at her demise her husband’s executors were to pay the same amount into her estate.”

John had also agreed to build a home for them at Goodwood. There was already a framed house that was a work house for the servants. He planned to build a brick house in front of it. The grounds were laid off, shrubbery planted and lumber bought, but it was not built. They had a new framed house with four rooms on the ground floor and two above. As Major Bartlett remarked “It was a rough looking thing, but comfortable, and as for the furniture, her house was always well furnished both before and after marriage.”

In January of 1860 John contracted pneumonia and died. He was a devote Baptist and had been licensed to preach in 1858 at Prosperity Baptist Church (today Bartlett Baptist). Mary Ann was a devout Methodist. John was buried in the graveyard at Goodwood. In his will, John left his estate to his nieces and nephews and appointed his nephews, Drs. Nicholas and George W. Blackwell, executors of his will. As Mary Ann had her own money, her husband had not mentioned her in his will.

George Blackwell qualified as executor of his uncle’s will and, disregarding Mary Ann Blackwell’s interests, in March 1860 he sold 66 slaves, shares in the Memphis and Ohio Railroad, livestock and a fine carriage.

Mary Ann bought some of these effects, otherwise she would have been without some necessary possessions. She filed suit in Chancery Court, then with the West Tennessee Supreme Court but the Civil War intervened and nothing was done. She continued to live at Goodwood during the war, but afterward moved into Bartlett, where she bought a home on Stage Road near Major Bartlett. Mary Ann Blackwell and the Blackwell heirs continued their litigation, still associating with one another but “agreeing to disagree.”

In the end, the courts awarded her the 706-acre Goodwood place out of Colonel Blackwell’s 1,234 acre holdings with a life interest in her awarded acreage. She bought the land outright, and the Goodwood place was confirmed to her in March 1880, after some 20 years of litigation. She rented out this property for the rest of her life.

Although she had no children, Mary Ann was fond of young people and helped to raise several, including Tommy, the Major Bartlett’s only surviving child of his first marriage, as well as and several younger relatives. Bettie Pulliam, a neighbor, wrote in her diary on May 16, 1864: “This evening Sannie and myself went over & spent the evening with Mrs. Blackwell, had a very nice time, we met Mary & Emma at the gate … they came in the front gate of Goodwood grove at the same time we entered the back gate. Mrs. B. would have us take tea & eat some strawberrys before we left.”

Mary Ann Blackwell died on July 21, 1886. She asked to be buried in the Taylor-Lewis (now Crowder) Cemetery in Hardeman County, and that request was honored. In her last will, executed in June 1885, she left 40 acres to her faithful servant, Frank Taylor, for life, after which the land was to be sold and the proceeds applied toward a Methodist parsonage in Bartlett. All her real estate was to be sold the January after her death, and those proceeds were to be divided among several of nieces and nephews. Dr. Nicholas Blackwell was left her silver pitcher with silver tumbler and waiters.

The Goodwood plantation was divided into tracts and sold. The home went through several ownerships and was acquired by Lorenzo Anderson, in whose family it remained for years. The old house was demolished after World War II. The Stage Road property was sold and over the years was owned by several well-to-do people. The house burned in 1918 but was replaced by another villa-type residence that also burned in 1932. In 1945 Dominic J. and Sarah Guillory (former mayor of Bartlett) bought the land. They sold it in 1986 to Bethel Church, a Pentecostal church. They built a large church in front of the home, which is used as the church parsonage today.

Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman, special to the Express.