The History Of

The Free Hill Community

“Community of Free Hill in Clay County, TN”

Contributed by Amy Batton
Free Hill (sometimes called Free Hills) is an African American community established in the Upper Cumberland before the Civil War. It is located northeast of Celina in a remote section of Clay County near the Kentucky border. The original inhabitants were the freed slaves of Virginia Hill, the daughter of a wealthy North Carolina planter.

Hill purchased 2,000 acres of isolated and hilly land in what was then Overton County. She then freed the slaves, turned the property over to them, and left the area. Folklore suggests that among the blacks were her mulatto children Rube, Josh, Betty and Marie.

Free Hill refers to the surname of the original residents as well as their legal status. Thus, the community’s name distinguished them from the slaves of owners with the same surname. The community conferred some degree of freedom on its residents and afforded protection for runaway slaves and black outlaws reaching the isolated region. The name also described the region’s remote and hilly physical geography. This provided a haven for antebellum runaway slaves and post-Civil War freedmen.

Free Hill stands as a testament to the resolve of African Americans to retain their sociocultural distinctiveness and promote self-help in an atmosphere of segregation and discrimination. During its heyday, Free Hill contained two grocery stores, three clubs, two eateries, two churches, a school, skilled artisans, and three hundred residents. Although a small, close-knit contingent remains in the black settlement, the community has declined since the 1960’s. A substantial number of residents deserted farming and moved to more prosperous areas for economic gain.

In September 1993, the State of Tennessee placed a historic marker on Highway 53 identifying the entrance to this African American community and commemorating its uniqueness. Free Hill’s historic Rosenwald school was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Folklorists also have conducted several research projects at Free Hill, documenting the community’s significant place within the folk life of the Upper Cumberland.

“Rosenwald School: African American Heritage Site”

Contributed by Wali R. Kharif, Tennessee Technological University

The Rosenwald School of the Free Hills community in Clay County, Tennessee, was but one of 354 Rosenwald schools built, with only about 30 still standing. In the year 2000, the National Trust placed these schools on its list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The Rosenwald Fund (also known as the Julius Rosenwald Fund) was established in 1917 by Julius Rosenwald and his family for “the well-being of mankind.”
 A Rosenwald School was the name informally applied to over 5,000 schools, shops and teachers’ homes in the United States, built primarily for the education of African Americans in the early 20th century. The name originated with Julius Rosenwald, an American clothier who became part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, and founder of The Rosenwald Fund. Many of the schools and other philanthropic causes were paid for through this fund. A requirement of grants for local matching funds resulted in community efforts which raised millions of dollars.


1828 Freehill Road, Celina, TN 38551
(931) 243-2220