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Tampa tombstone shares master, slave's tale of brave love

The gravestone of William and Nancy Ashley, master and slave, is among the most celebrated, and most curious, monuments at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tampa. While details of their long devotion remain obscure, their burial together was shockingly unambiguous in 1873.
Published Jan. 30, 2013

TAMPA — Oaklawn Cemetery contains the graves of a governor, cattle barons and mayors, along with servants, pirates and victims of yellow fever. Yet for all its seeming egalitarian sentiment, it still reflects the rigid race and class divisions of its era — gentry over here, riffraff over there.

Tombstones of Confederate veterans line the main path like sentries. Epitaphs drip with Old South melancholy: "Death, like the dew from Heaven, fell quickly yet gently on this drooping flower.'' Some say more by what they omit: "Adam, A Black Slave Lynched 12/16/1859.''

But no epitaph is more intriguing than this one:

Here lies

Wm. Ashley and Nancy Ashley,

Master, and Servant,

Faithful to each other in that relation

in life, in death they are not seperated.

Stranger consider and be wiser,

In the Grave all human distinction,

of race or caste, mingle together

In one common dust.

To commemorate their fidelity to each other

this stone was erected by their Executor.

John Jackson, 1873.

Those are 63 astonishing words. A white man and former slave share a grave in ground reserved for Old South bourbons. What a bold testament to the human spirit and the power of love. The more you learn, the more remarkable it seems.

In the book Tampa, Karl Grismer wrote that Ashley, a Virginian, came to Tampa in 1837 and sold supplies to Army troops. In 1856, he was elected Tampa's first city clerk. Nancy was a slave from Georgia.

The assumption has long been that they lived clandestinely as husband and wife. Historians have called them "sweethearts,'' and Tampa's official guide to the cemetery says as much.

Some have been skeptical, though. In Afro-Americans of Hillsborough County, 1870-1890, Julius Gordon said Nancy was William's "concubine.'' Indeed, this relationship didn't start with chocolates and roses.

Was this exploitation cloaked in the oft-repeated euphemism that the servants were "like family"? In the spirit of the epitaph, let us consider.

The censuses of 1850 and 1860 list only William in his household. No wife, no children. Slaves were inventoried like livestock in the Slave Schedule, catalogued by age, sex and color — black or mulatto. We find Nancy here. The 1850 Slave Schedule showed Ashley owned one slave, age 40, female, black.

Seven years later, Nancy is cited by name in another, albeit private, document — William Ashley's will.

He ordered a plot be purchased for himself, along with "the body of my servant girl Nancy when she may die,'' and that, upon his death, she receive "all my real and financial estate'' and her freedom. That was generous at a time when a dead owner's slaves were routinely sold or handed down like heirlooms.

This was explosive stuff in 1857. Tampa was coming apart at the seams as the nation moved inexorably toward war. Amid the peril around them, William thought of Nancy and how she would fare if he were gone. He took steps to provide for her and ensure she would be free. What's more, he made it plain that he wanted them to be together for eternity.

In Real Women of Tampa and Hillsborough County, Doris Weatherford gives William credit for being monogamous, unlike some of his married neighbors with slaves on the side. "Neither law nor custom allowed such emotions to be openly acknowledged, . . . and courageous men such as William Ashley were extremely rare. He speaks to us from the grave about what truly matters.''

Why didn't he just free Nancy in 1857? If they were lovers, freeing her would have destroyed what they had, and possibly endangered them. Marriage was illegal, and the community, though it probably knew about them, would never have tolerated Ashley living openly with a free black woman. Slavery offered cover.

The war freed nearly half the state's population, Nancy among them. Yet she stayed with William, perhaps daunted by the prospect of starting anew in her 60s in the post-war turmoil.

Something happened five years after the war that must have been bittersweet indeed. The 1870, the U.S. Census counted Nancy by name, as a citizen, not property. It noted she was a cook and could read.

William died the following year, on Oct. 30, 1871, and Nancy's health began to fail. She wrote a will on Aug. 8, 1872, leaving everything to her nephew and other relatives. She asked for "a respectable burial,'' evidently something she felt she needed to demand amid the intensifying racial strife and oppression.

John Jackson was executor of both William and Nancy's estates. A former mayor, Jackson had known William for years; in 1847, he had surveyed Tampa streets and named Ashley Drive after William. Jackson had been a lieutenant in the Silver Grays, a home-guard of men too old for the Confederate Army. Canter Brown's Tampa in Civil War and Reconstruction says he was allied with opponents of Reconstruction.

Nevertheless, probate records show he scrupulously carried out his friend's wishes, paying for doctor visits and 19 months of "attendant'' care for Nancy until May 31, 1873. Then he paid for her coffin and her burial.

With a post-war power struggle raging, Jackson had a lot to lose by helping bury a black woman in a white man's grave. And yet, he did it. Not only that: He had it carved in stone and signed his name.

The 11 lines bear a trace of remorse, as if written by someone realizing, too late, the ruinous consequences of past decisions. He was circumspect — as a man grappling with mixed emotions would be — but his words ring true. And they point toward love.

Morris Kennedy is a freelance writer and former Tampa Bay Times editor.

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