Benjamin Holmes was a slave and a tailor’s apprentice born around 1846. Throughout his life, he would serve many different owners. The South Carolina native was purchased by a hotel owner and moved to Tennessee. Through illegal curiosity, Holmes would teach himself to read and write by reading the signs and words on the doors until he figured out how to spell.
As his life story goes, Benjamin Holmes’ owner was sent off to fight for the Confederacy and Holmes was left to work in the hotel. He was resold to slave traders and treated like an animal. He was fed cow’s head, boiled grits and rice, and locked in a slave pen. Somehow during his enslavement, he managed to obtain a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, discovering the government stance on slavery and was left to find work elsewhere. He would eventually volunteer as a valet for Union General Jefferson Columbus Davis.
After the war was over, Holmes’ services to General Columbus were complete so he took a job working for a local barber. When the barber died, he left the estate to Holmes, making him the first black estate administrator in Tennessee. Unfortunately, the estate was of no value and Holmes was left in debt of $300.
By 1868, Holmes was attending Fisk University. He would pay for his tuition by teaching 68 students in Davidson County for $30 a month. He would even teach in a more dangerous area of town, where a shot was fired during a class session. Holmes would work hard at Fisk, be named the chapel’s deacon and become an original member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Although he often bumped heads with the Jubilee’s director, he would eventually arrange his own farewell concert in London.
Benjamin Holmes died at age 28 of tuberculosis in Nashville in 1875. His life would be told in a children’s book called “Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation” by Pat Sherman and Floyd Cooper.