Online, Interactive Museum Showcases Black Nashville History

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Learotha Williams, “Dr. Josie Wells,” North Nashville Heritage Project.

Dr. Learotha Williams, the history professor at Tennessee State University known for his North Nashville Heritage Project, has taken the preservation venture to a new level.

He launched a new website, May 11, 2020, that offers museum-quality exhibits and serves as a vehicle to share his digital collections with researchers, educators, and enthusiasts alike.

In turn, users of the site can submit their own images and inspiring stories about North Nashville history and culture. “Think of memories you carry with you to Greenwood Cemetery,” said Williams.

“It’s my hope that the work we’re doing will lead to a deep appreciation and study of African American history in Middle Tennessee.”

Williams collaborated with Simmons University graduate student Alexandra Howard, a Nashville native, to develop the site.

Howard contacted Williams earlier this year, when she was looking to collaborate with a local scholar or institution on a digital project showcasing North Nashville. The project would cap her master’s degree in Library Science and Cultural Heritage Informatics. She had been mentored in some of black Nashville’s history as a child at Hull Jackson Montessori elementary school, so she understood the value and need for preservation.

The pair spent most of last spring working together, using an open-source, web-publishing platform developed at George Mason University, called Omeka. The program is used to teach curation and is used by many small museums and historical societies.

Accessible at https://northnashvilleheritage.omeka.net/ , the site expands upon Williams research, begun ten years ago, with students in his Introduction to Public History course.

The inaugural exhibit, entitled “Books, Bibles, Blues, and Business: Legacy of North Nashville,” is drawn from the six different collections, each a distinct category of items.

Under “Business,” a striking, two-dimensional representation of Dr. Josie Wells (b. 1878 – d. 1921), shows an image of her face superimposed over a picture of the historic Morris Memorial Building. “At the turn of the century, she was the only black woman who had an office downtown,” said Williams. Accompanying text reads, in part: “Wells was the first female graduate of Meharry Medical College and the first woman to teach at Meharry. She was the first practicing female doctor in Nashville, specializing in diseases of women and children. She died on March 20, 1921 at only 42 years old.”

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Learotha Williams, “Nashville Slave Market,” North Nashville Heritage Project.

Equally, if not more intriguing in the Oral History collection, a second, two-dimensional representation: a drawing of the Nashville Slave Market transposed over an image of Public Square. Accompanying text reads, in part: “The slave trade was a booming industry in Nashville. Enslaved people were sold at the Davidson County Courthouse.”

This latest iteration of the North Nashville Heritage Project accelerates its goal, said Williams, which is to collect and archive. “The key thing is to amplify voices that have been overlooked, or marginalized.”

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