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 Peter Vertrees

Sumner County News Examiner - February 7, 2008



Peter Vertrees was legendary black leader in county.

BY DESSISLAVA YANKOVA - Sumner  County, Tennessee - A. M. Staff - Thursday, February 7, 2008


Vertrees spent years raising funds to help pay for African-American education in Sumner County.

He didn’t know his father or the date of his birth. He knew little about his mother but much about the Lord. Born to a white woman and a mulatto man, Peter Vertrees was raised and lived in the South during a bigotry-soaked era. Yet, at his funeral blacks and whites united to pay a tribute to a legacy that’s still alive. “You had to deal with a lot of prejudice in those days, but even the most prejudiced people respected him and called him a gentleman,” said Kenneth Thomson, a white man and a former Sumner County historian who is distantly related to the Vertrees family. There are many reasons why Peter Vertrees’ historical marker stands on the corner of South Water and Bledsoe streets. Nearby is the cottage he built in 1888, the place where his last living child, Lillie Harding Vertrees Odom, now resides.

“It isn’t often this is done, especially for black folks. I hope it can be an inspiration, especially to the young people,” Odom, 93, said the day the marker was put in the summer of 2000, according to a New Examiner article.

Vertrees devoted his life to others. After serving in the Civil War, he organized and preached at several churches in and around Sumner County, four of which are still operating. In each facility, he established a special fund that paid members’ medical and burial expenses.

Back then, many churches served as schools during the week, and Vertrees raised funds to start schools in his churches. “The county wouldn’t be able to build it for the blacks, so he had to do something,” Thomson said.

While the county has appropriated salaries for black teachers since the 1870s, it was not until after World War I when officials started funding construction of schools for blacks.

Vertrees also founded the East Fork Missionary Baptist Association, an organization of 28 churches in Sumner, Davidson, Trousdale, Robertson, Macon and Wilson counties. First of its kind for each region, the association is still operating.

His journey started when he was 5. His mother, Mary Elizabeth “Polly” Skaggs, went to a small courthouse in Edmonson County, Ky., where the 20-year-old white woman indentured Peter to a white farmer and tavern keeper, Jacob Vertrees, and his wife, Catherine. Skaggs had conceived the child by Jacob Vertrees’ son, the Rev. Booker Harding, a mulatto man whose past is unknown.

At the time, the law required that children of mixed race be given up to the court at age 5. Placed in foster homes, many were raised as slaves.

That wasn’t Peter Vertrees’ fate. “They reared him like their own child,” Thomson said. “He didn’t know it was a problem being black until he went on his own.”

Once he reached adulthood, Vertrees went to work at a carriage stop on the road from Louisville to Nashville, where his boss abused him verbally, Peter Vertrees recalled in a handwritten autobiography written several years before his death.

He worked various jobs until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he joined the Confederate Army as a bodyguard, cook and nurse for his white uncle Dr. John Luther Vertrees, who was an assistant surgeon in the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment.

Although, he was never on the front line, he witnessed the battles at Shiloh and Vicksburg and endured the loneliness and homesickness all soldiers experienced.

While in the war, he once borrowed his uncle’s horse and went fishing on the Mississippi River. Suddenly, he heard gunshots, and bullets from several Yankee boats flew over his head.

“He said he never rode another horse again. He said he liked fishing, but he liked life better,” Thomson said.

In his autobiography, Peter Vertrees recorded the most beautiful sight he saw in the war: his regiment split in two lines throwing snowballs at each other.

Before the war ended, he asked his unit’s chaplain to baptize him and later wrote in his autobiography that the war had a big impact on his life and helped shape and strengthen his personality in many ways.

When the war ended, he rode a train to Nashville and then headed to Gallatin to live with another uncle, Judge James Cunningham Vertrees. Having decided to dedicate his life to the Lord, Peter Vertrees completed his education and became a Baptist minister.

Probably the only black pastor in the area, he walked across the county to serve several churches at once. “He referred to this exercise as his period of meditation,” Thomson wrote in a historical article.

For more than 60 years, Vertrees served as an educator, minister and main representative of the black community.

“He spoke for them,” Thomson said. “He was the most powerful black leader in the county.”

Peter Vertrees had equally good relationships with the black, white and even the Jewish community, all of which supported him in his endeavors.

He died in January 1926. Every business in Gallatin closed for his funeral, and mourners filled the auditorium of the old Central High School where the new library is being built. “It was the only place big enough,” Thomson said.


Several churches the Rev. Peter Vertrees organized include:

Durham’s Chapel Baptist Church in Bethpage
William’s Chapel Baptist Church in Cairo
Village Green Baptist Church in Gallatin (no longer exists)
Franklin Chapel Baptist Church in Gallatin
Sylvan Street Baptist Church in Nashville


The Rev. Peter Vertrees married three times. In 1872 he married Amanda Love Dowell who died six months later. He then married Sarah Head, who bore him three sons. In 1901, Vertrees married Diora Wylie, who helped him record his autobiography. She bore him five children: Russell, Conwell, Elverlina, Bertha Mae, Lillie Harding and Peter Wylie.

The 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment, which Vertrees served with during the Civil War, later become part of the legendary “Orphan Brigade,” which fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and the Atlanta campaign.

Vertrees’ mother, Mary Elizabeth “Polly” Skaggs, was distantly related to Patrick Henry, “The Patriot.” Vertrees’ maternal great-grandmother was Henry’s sister. Source: Kenneth Thomson, former Sumner County historian, Jan. 10, 2005, News Examiner article


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