Southern Heroes

Brigette Jones: The Truth Teller

The Tennessee curator gives voice to those whose stories were often silenced

Illustration: Barry Falls

Brigette Jones wanted to find a career that combined her passions: talking and history. Never did she imagine, though, that she would become a tour guide at a plantation, or that her work uniform would be a Southern-belle gown. Yet after earning her degree in African American history at Tennessee State University, that’s exactly what she ended up doing in 2015, at Belle Meade Plantation. “I was sharing the legacy and history of wealthy white people,” Jones notes playfully, “so I had to dress the part of a rich white lady.” 

At Belle Meade, outside of Nashville, racehorses were raised—most Kentucky Derby winners, including Seabiscuit and Secretariat, trace their bloodlines back to the estate’s premier stud farm. But Jones wanted to tell a different story. After a few years away, she returned to Belle Meade with a mission to bring the 136 enslaved people who had lived there to the forefront. She combed through census records, death certificates, wills, and newspaper articles, and created a tour focused on spotlighting people such as head groomer Bob Green. “I spoke the truth for those who couldn’t speak when they were alive,” Jones says, “and I didn’t sugarcoat it. I debunked the myth that there was ever a good slave owner.” She conveyed the stories of supposedly “happy house slaves” in the kitchen, where they were raped. “It’s meant to shock, and a lot of people end up sobbing.” 

In 2018, Belle Meade gave Jones a newly created title: director of African American Studies. She still gave tours, just not dressed as a belle. In fact, as of this year, Belle Meade’s tour guides no longer wear costumes. “There’s been a slow push for correct interpretation of enslavement at plantation museums across the United States,” says Jones, who helped set the bar, and will now carry that mission into her new position as curator of social history at the Tennessee State Museum. “These stories resonate with people.”


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