Lost: South Nashville

Neighborhood History Uncovered in Quarantine

Ever since we all began to splinter into isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic, just about every first Saturday members and friends of AAHGS Nashville have been gathering around our computer screens for our monthly meeting, looking into our collective past.

The August meeting focused on destruction of African American neighborhoods to make way for interstate highway systems, and similar projects given “right of eminent domain.” AAHGS Nashville member Deborah Washington was so moved by the discussion, she dug into her family archives to find photographs and recall memories of what it was like growing up in her South Nashville neighborhood. What she misses most is the bond shared with neighbors. “All the neighbors on the block knew each other,” she said. “We were like one, big, happy family.” The following is her story.

A young Deborah Washington (left), with her cousin and mother, on the street outside her family home at 1004 11th Ave., South (circa 1956).

My Home

by Deborah Washington

About 12 years after the photo above was taken, in February of 1968, my family moved from 1004 11th Avenue South.  Our house and my aunt’s house on Grand Avenue were the only 2 houses still standing in the neighborhood.  Because of urban renewal, we had to move from our home.  We did not want to move.  We were happy there.  Some during that time and a lot of people today do not understand this.  They do not understand that you do not need material things to be happy.  The neighborhood consisted of mostly rentals.  There were a few people who owned their home.  Those houses were the nicer houses in the neighborhood.  I lived on the portion of 11th Avenue that was in between Grand Avenue and Archer Street. 

Family home of Deborah Washington, 1004 11th Ave., S., (circa 1960).

Our house consisted of three rooms and a kitchen.  The rooms were called the “front room”, the “middle room” and the “back room”.  All 3 of those rooms were bedrooms.  On the section of 11th Avenue that I lived, there was no indoor plumbing in any of the houses.  We had a hydrant outside for water and we had an outhouse.  Inside the house we used chamber pots (the proper name but, we called them something else).  We had a water bucket with a dipper that we would fill and use for drinking water.  We had tin wash tubs, foot tubs and wash pans.  Heat was provided by a coal stove and a fireplace.  I can remember in the kitchen having a coal stove for cooking.  It had four areas for the pots and pans.  I also remember having an actual ice box.  Blocks of ice were bought to put in it to keep food cold.  Fortunately, in my earlier years, we obtained an electric stove and an electric refrigerator which we continued to call an ice box.  Mom would wash clothes in the wash tub with a washing board.  Someone gave her an old washing machine with a wringer that you had to operate manually.  She used it, but would still wash some things using the wash tub and washing board.

The Neighborhood

There were a lot of grocery stores in the neighborhood.  We did our main grocery shopping at Cut-Rate Bi-Rite on the corner of Overton Street and South Street and at H.G. Hills grocery store located on 16th Avenue South and Villa Place.  There was also a Bi-Rite on the corner of 12th Avenue and Hawkins called Rays Bi-Rite (I think that is the name).  There was a grocery store on the corner of 12th Ave So and Grand Avenue that we called Pat O’Connor.  Not sure if that was the actual name of the store, but it was the name of the owner.  There was a grocery store on the corner of 12th Avenue South and Edgehill.  There was also a grocery store on the corner of 12th Avenue South and Horton.  There were smaller stores that we went to that were not as big as the grocery stores.  Hicks Grocery Store was on South Street where 11th Avenue ended, but 11th Avenue did continue about a 4th of a block down.  Mr. Billy Martin’s grocery store located on the corner of 10th Avenue South and Overton Street.  Mr. Billy Martin would let families get food on account.  My grandmother would send me to his store with a list and no money.  He would gather the items, bag them and send me on my way.  A newer store, Service Drive-In was built when I was around 11 or 12.  There were probably other stores, but these are the ones I knew about.  After the urban renewal, until recently, there were no grocery stores in the neighborhood.  With the development of the Gulch, there are now some stores nearby in the Gulch area.

There were two pharmacies that we went to.  The pharmacies were named after the pharmacist.  One was Clemmon’s Pharmacy located on 12th Avenue South in front of Carter-Lawrence School and Neely’s Pharmacy located on the corner of 12th and Hawkins across from the Ray’s Bi-Rite store.  I liked going to Neely’s Pharmacy because of the big rack of comic books.  I loved comic books and bought all my comic books at this pharmacy.  We loved to go to Mr. Clemmon’s Pharmacy because he had a soda fountain and he served ice cream and other soda fountain treats.  He also had a wide selection of candy in a display case.

There were some retail stores.  Schulman’s on the corner of 8th Avenue South and South Street, sold clothing, shoes and other items.  Mandell’s on 12th Avenue South, sold clothing and other items.  Wynn’s was a hardware store located on the corner of 12th Avenue South and Grand Avenue.  We purchased our wash and foot tubs, and wash pans there; our water buckets and dippers, our stove pipes; chamber pots when we could afford one, etc.  

The schools in the neighborhood were Carter-Lawrence Elementary School and Rose Park Jr. High School.  We went to Cameron High School which was in a different part of south Nashville.  Prior to Rose Park being built, children living in the Edgehill area went to Cameron starting in grade 7.  After Rose Park was built, the children in the Edgehill area went to Cameron in the 10th grade.  At one time children on my part of South Nashville had to walk to Cameron High School when they entered the 7th grade.  By the time I went to Cameron, buses were provided.

Other business in the area were Deford Bailey’s shoeshine shop, Mr. Carruthers’ shoe repair shop, a pool hall, a laundry mat (we called it a wishy washer).  There were also beer joints on 12th Avenue South and South Street.  There were also several beauty salons.  I remember a barber shop on the corner of 12th Avenue South and Grand.  There were probably others, but that is the one I remember.

Many churches were in the area and some are still there.  My church, Greater Bethel AME on South Street, New Hope on Hawkins Street, Kayne Avenue on 12th Avenue South (not original location).  There are many other churches that I have not named.

Patton Brothers Funeral home is still located in its same location on South Street.

Miscellaneous Remembrances’

A rock quarry existed where Rose Park is now.  In September, every night when the State Fair was going on, people would gather on the street at the fence of the quarry and watch the fireworks that were set off every night.  The quarry was scary.  I was still a young child when it was filled in and there were tales that mothers would throw their babies in the quarry.  I think we were told this to keep us from acting bad.  I was glad when the quarry was filled.

On the corner of 12th Avenue South and Edgehill, there was a park called Edgehill Park.  When we had recess in school, the teachers would take us across the street to play in the park.  It was lots of fun.  When they filled in the quarry to make Rose Park, they took the land Edgehill Park was on and built the senior citizen high rise.

Jersey Farms milk company was located on South Street.  There was always a school trip to Jersey Farms and after the tour of the building, we were given a carton of chocolate milk.

Where Did They Go?

As people moved, where they went depended on whether they owned their home.  Renters were mainly moved to one of the housing projects.  Most of my friends’ families were moved to JC Napier and University Court.  A few went to Settle Court (the official name was something else).  My best friend and her family moved to Cumberland View projects.  My mother and aunt did not want to leave our part of south Nashville, so we waited, hoping to get into Edgehill projects.  My family did get into Edgehill projects, but my aunt’s family had to go to JC Napier projects.  When they built the newer projects on Edgehill next to the senior citizens homes, my aunt moved from JC Napier into them.  A lot of people who owned their homes bought homes further out 10th Ave, 11th Ave, 12th Avenue South.  They bought homes on Lawrence Ave, Douglas Ave, Gilmore Ave, Kirkwood, Waldkirch, Halcyon, etc.  I know of one family that bought a house in Northwest Nashville on Drakes Branch Road.

Family of Deborah Washington moved into this home at 1017 Southside Court, in 1972, where they lived for 46 years.

Even though we did not want to move, the houses needed to be torn down.  The rental houses were in bad shape.  The landlords did not maintain the properties.  In addition, in 1968 in the city of Nashville in my neighborhood, many of the houses had no indoor plumbing.  When we moved, we were told that when the new houses were built, the people that had been relocated would get first choice of the houses.  In 1972, we moved from Edgehill Projects to 1017 Southside Court.  My mother and aunt were given the opportunity to be among the first to choose a house to purchase.  The tree that was in the front yard of our old house was now in the backyard of our new house.  They got as close as they could to the spot that the old house was located.

The Neighborhood Today

Deborah Washington’s family sold their 1970s home in 2016; it was bulldozed and replaced by a dual residence on the single lot. 1017 Southside Court sold for $774,100 and 1019 Southside Court sold for $790,000.

Regentrification has gone through and changed the neighborhood again.  My mother moved from 1017 Southside Court in 2016 after living there for 46 years.  Many of the houses on the street had been sold to developers and were being torn down and replaced with expensive housing.  Two residences were put on the lot where my mother’s house once stood.  The area from 8th Avenue South to 12th Avenue South and from Archer Street to South Street is almost complete.  There are only a few of the original houses from the urban renewal left.  The houses were replaced by housing $700,000 and up.  What was once a neighborhood with affordable housing is now a neighborhood for the rich.

I can tell a lot more about life in the neighborhood but, I am keeping this short.  I would like to mention that all the kids in the neighborhood played together in the street.  We had fun.  When we talk today, we reminisce about the good old days.

Online, Interactive Museum Showcases Black Nashville History

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.”

nnhp_slave market_
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.”