Cemeteries, graveyards and memorials are visual reminders of our public memory of the enslaved. They exist because our ancestors desired to memorialize those buried there.
Unfortunately, many historic African American cemeteries have been forgotten; some of them paved over, others taken over by developers. It’s up to us to save the ones that remain. By visiting and honoring the sacred places of our ancestors, who were enslaved and freed to survive mostly on their own, we give humanity and dignity to their memory.
This morning, our AAHGS Nashville Chapter hosted a moving and insightful set of presentations and discussions about saving historic African American cemeteries. We were honored to hear presentations from Zada Law, Leigh Ann Gardner, Mike Taliento, and Phyliss Smith.
Zada Law shared about the Places, Perspectives project to document African American community building in Tennessee. The project locates, researches, maps, and tells the stories of churches, schools and cemeteries in post-emancipation rural communities in Tennessee. Zada described work to document and geographically map African American cemeteries in 4 sample counties across the state – Greene, Maury, Fayette, and Hardeman counties. You can explore the current Places, Perspectives site at https://digital.mtsu.edu/digital/collection/p15838coll17 and a formal site with more in-depth cemetery information will launch this summer on the website of the Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University.
Leigh Ann Gardner has been researching cemeteries established through fraternal organizations and benevolent societies for 12 years. She’s documented her findings in her new book, To Care for the Sick and Bury the Dead (available through Vanderbilt University Press). In her presentation, Leigh Ann described the importance of lodges for the African American community, sharing an excerpt from her book about a Knights of Pythias Thanksgiving celebration in 1909. While these organizations thrived between 1865 and 1930, through the cemeteries they established, their legacy continues. Mount Ararat, one of Nashville’s oldest African American cemeteries, is but one example – having been established by a benevolent society.
Our meeting closed with a presentation Mike Taliento & Phyliss Smith -both are members of the Mount Olive Cemetery Preservation Society and shared the progress made over the past 18 years to preserve and document the Mount Olive Cemetery. Mike shard the mission of the society, history about the cemetery, described the extensive community involvement and support, and showed many pictures documenting the restoration and preservation efforts. Phyliss gave many details about the work she leads to research the lives of those buried in the cemetery and ensuring their stories are told. Another addition to the remarkable work that’s happening, the society is having a ceremony on Saturday, June 18th for the official unveiling of their U.S. Colored Troops Monument. https://www.facebook.com/mtolivechps/.
We thank all of our presenters and attendees today!
Many thanks to John F. Baker Jr. for his presentation yesterday, “Finding the Stories Behind the Names: John F. Baker, Jr. Makes It Plain“. John shared the important and impactful work he’s done to research the Washington families of Wessyngton Plantation.
John shared details from his research and the methods for how he captured the stories and insights in his book, Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation. If you do not have his book, it is a must-read! John’s done some incredible work and his story is worth reading.
Dr. Westmont is the coordinator of an online volunteer transcription project for records from the Lone Rock Stockade (which was in Grundy County, Tennessee) spanning 1870-1896. Using the From the Page platform, microfilm images of the ledger records are posted online, and anyone can volunteer to help with the transcription of the information that appears on the ledger pages.
Why is this indexing project important? Because, for decades, the state (as did many other states after emancipation), unfairly targeted and imprisoned African Americans, then leased them out as forced labor to private businesses. The conditions in which they lived and the ways in which they were treated were horrendous. These records are important because they provide an opportunity for us to KNOW and LEARN these individuals’ names and begin to do the work to TELL THEIR STORIES. And possibly, to reconnect families (via descendants) that have been systematically ripped apart by this practice.
The records contain details such as names, ages, race, the county in which they were convicted, the crime for which they were convicted, sometimes there are physical descriptions such as height/weight, dates of discharge or death, and more. To date, 330 ledger pages have been transcribed by about 30 volunteers. But, much more work remains to be done.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Ann Walling grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1940s and 1950s in a family with deep roots in Mississippi and a history tightly bound to the Old South. To a small girl’s sensibility, her family’s lavish Sunday dinners were a liturgy that reinforced strict Southern mores she was taught never to question. But lurking behind the fine china were troubling contradictions, racial injustice, and tightly guarded family secrets.
Told with clear-eyed empathy, Sunday Dinner is the remarkable story of a young woman’s moral awakening amidst a society’s painful reckoning with the past, and of the things we choose to embrace and leave behind about the places we come from and the people who define us. In writing the book, Ms. Walling explored the complicated relationship between her family, and the family of the slaves her family owned. Their story is absolutely compelling and was recently featured on Nashville Public Radio.
Please join us on Saturday, May 7th, to hear to hear Ms. Walling share her story and discuss her book. If you have not read the book, we encourage you to purchase a copy! Ms. Walling will sign books at the meeting and will also have a few copies available for sale.
After the meeting, we welcome you to spend time working on your own family history research; books will be available to aid you. If you are able to join us, please register to let us know are coming.
The meeting will be held at the Nashville Public Library in the Civil Rights Conference RoomApril 2nd at 9:30. The meeting is open to the public and we look forward to seeing you there!
William Edmondson (c. 1870-1951), was a renowned Nashville sculptor whose entry into the art world was brought about by divine command. In 1937, five years into his craft, Edmondson’s work was featured in a one man show at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art – setting history as the first solo exhibit there by an African American. For the last two years, Mark Schlicher has immersed himself in original research to uncover previously unknown details about William Edmondson’s life and art. Please join us on Saturday, April 2nd, to hear Mark share his work and research for his upcoming documentary, Chipping Away.
Mark Schlicher is a documentary producer, director, and cinematographer with nearly 40 years of media experience. His work has been shown nationally on PBS and The Smithsonian Channel. A longtime Nashville resident, Mark first learned about William Edmondson in early 2013, at the time he started to pursue his own passion for sculpting. Mark has traveled extensively overseas for documentary projects, and shoots regularly for the Associated Press, as well as commercial clients. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor’s degree in education.
After the meeting, we welcome you to spend time working on your own family history research; books will be available to aid you. If you are able to join us, please RSVP to let us know you’re coming. The meeting is open to the public and we look forward to seeing you there!
WHEN: Saturday, April 2, 2016 from 9:30 AM to 12:00 PM (CDT)
WHERE: Nashville Public Library – Civil Rights Room – Nashville Public Library – Civil Rights Room – 615 Church St., Nashville, TN 37219
With this event, we are kicking-off our 2016 monthly meetings. With the exception of July & September, we will meet the first Saturday of each month from 9:30-12 in the Civil Rights Room of the downtown Nashville Public Library. More info to come on future meeting agendas!