About the Collection

Citizenship—what that has meant and how that has changed—is at the heart of this digital exploration into Tennessee history and culture. Is citizenship just limited to those of a certain color or ethnic background?  Can all citizens be equal in their rights and opportunities?  What obligations come with citizenship?  How have we addressed their questions in the past, and how can we learn from past trials and triumphs?

The stories you can explore through the objects, songs, photographs, paintings, and documents of this website are often those of challenges and obstacles placed before those who pursued the rights and benefits of citizenship.  But they also tell us of the triumphs—that people can scale the most brutal of social, cultural, and economic walls and create still vibrant communities, institutions, and culture in the wake of their struggle. 

People love to learn about and imagine the days when Native Americans ruled the land and then came the pioneers and how they transformed land and peoples into an actual state that became part of a growing nation.  Everyone uses the era of Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson as a touchstone.  Here in the middle decades of the 19th century Tennessee had political power and prominence.  It was a time of conflict and controversy, although the issues that united those with power—the necessity of Indian Removal and of slavery—are the issues most controversial now, as we continue to grapple with the ways both the Trail of Tears and the specter of slavery have marked the landscape and very psyche of Tennessee.

In 2014, however, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a unanimous resolution admitting the disaster of slavery while groups across the region have been busily marking and preserving places and sections of the Trail of Tears.  We do have an ability to address the issues that matter and move forward.

The same can be said about the years that changed everything: the American Civil War, 1861-1865.  In the 1960s Tennesseans celebrated a war where, it seemed, everyone had been or would have been a supporter of the Confederacy.  Fifty years later a much more truthful commemoration has taken place, one that admits the role of slavery in causing the war, that recognizes the tremendous hardships and loss on the homefront that came from occupation and warfare, that highlights the role that African American troops played in fighting for their own freedom, and one that understands that it was truly a Civil War in Tennessee, that Unionists and Confederates existed in all sections of the state, a time when Tennesseans were truly divided.

We want to think that peace in 1865 ended most of those divisions and with slavery out of the way, Tennesseans could move forward into a brighter, more confident future.  But one big question remained—that of citizenship—and it took more than another 100 years to resolve. Even with the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s protecting citizenship rights of all Americans, in some quarters it remains a point of conflict and controversy today.

Tennesseans transformed themselves and their state between 1865 and 1945, but as we have learned in the 21st century, the work is never really done.  Achieving citizenship, and making it meaningful to all, remains a challenge.  We can learn from our pasts to build better, stronger communities and a better, more successful Tennessee.

Carroll Van West, Ph.D.
Tennessee State Historian

For Researchers and Educators

The Trials, Triumphs, and Transformations website was designed to place images of historical documents, works of art, and material culture objects within easy reach of teachers and students of Tennessee history, but it is hoped that scholars at all levels will find the materials assembled here exciting and valuable. The collection of images and information for Trials, Triumphs and Transformations, while useful within the context of the themes and stories presented here, is also housed permanently in a CONTENTdm database that will become a permanent part of the Middle Tennessee State University Walker Library Digital Collections. These electronic records are searchable online and available for browsing with complete catalog information that will lead scholars to additional resource collections. Lesson plans related to these images and essays, created by educators working with Tennessee's Teaching with Primary Sources program, enhance each of the website's six themes.