Learn about Nashville’s rich black history

  • Jerry Pentecost is the drummer for the Old Crow Medicine Show.

Last year, the Tennessean published an essay I wrote to my soon-to-be twin daughters about the outdated principles behind Black History Month.

A year later, I feel even more strongly about the knowledge needed to help my daughters grow into strong African American individuals. It’s important to share every aspect of our story with our children, even though it can sometimes feel uncomfortable.

Black history is American history and withholding it removes some of the critical fabric that binds our nation together. Black History Month gives us representation, something my kids and all the kids in Nashville deserve to see highlighted. So in February, here are 28 proud profiles, one for each day of the month, celebrating our city’s most overlooked contributors, African Americans in Nashville.

jerry whit

Discover the unknown history

1. After hearing the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform at a show in Britain in 1873, Queen Victoria coined the title “Music City.” The group was organized in 1871.

2. Nashville was originally home to five historically black colleges and universities: American Baptist College, formerly Roger Williams University, Central Tennessee College, now Walden University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee State University. Notable alumni include John Lewis, WEB Du Bois and Oprah Winfrey.

3. In 1951, Nashville attorneys Z. Alexander Looby and Robert Lillard were the first African Americans elected to the city council since 1911. Looby also represented students arrested at the Nashville Sit-Ins.

Some of the 26 black students, including John Lewis, third from right in front, faced a Nashville City Court judge on February 21, 1961. They were arrested for blocking an emergency exit while standing in Tennessee Theater by day.  before.  Some of the attorneys helping them are Coyness L. Ennix Sr., left, and Z. Alexander Looby.

4. Jefferson Street was the heart of Nashville’s African-American community. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Jefferson Street attracted musical artists from all over. Artists like Jimi Hendrix and Ray Charles have played at clubs Del Morocco, Club Baron and Club Steal-Away. And a bit more about Charlotte, Etta James recorded a live album at the New Era Club.

Lorenzo Washington, owner and founder of the Jefferson Street Sound Museum, is dedicated to preserving the history of the Jefferson Street music scene.  This mural depicts famous singers and musicians who have performed in the Jefferson Street bar and event venues.

5. Based in Nashville in 1905, brothers Moses and Calvin McKissack established the nation’s first African-American architectural firm. It is the oldest minority-owned architecture and construction firm in the United States. Their best-known projects include the Carnegie Library at Fisk University, Nationals Park baseball stadium, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Some of the 123 anti-segregation protesters walk past the Carnegie Library on Polk Ave., after marching through downtown Nashville during a 75-minute stand-in at four Church Street theaters on February 24, 1961.

6. In 1893, Dr. Georgia E. Lee Patton became the first African-American woman to graduate from Meharry Medical College, making her the first African-American woman to become a licensed surgeon and physician in Tennessee.

7. Nashville’s first sit-in took place at Harvey’s Department Store, formerly located at 6th and Church, and was led by civil rights activist, James Lawson.

Two employees of Herschel's Tic Toc restaurant, right, form a human barricade to prevent sit-in protesters, including local chef John Lewis, center, from entering the Church Street establishment on November 24, 1962. The Nashville Police Department moved in with lightning speed to quell a series of incidents throughout the two-hour sit-in.

8. On May 10, 1960, Nashville became the first city in the segregated South to desegregate its food outlets thanks to the many efforts of a civil rights activist like Diane Nash.

9. In January 1794, a slave, Robert “Black Bob” Renfro, was licensed to sell liquor, making him Nashville’s first African-American entrepreneur. He will remain legally a slave until November 10, 1801.

10. In 1888, Greenwood Cemetery became Nashville’s second African-American cemetery. It was created by Preston Taylor, one of the most influential voices in the African-American community at the start of the 20th century. Taylor also created Greenwood Park which was the first park for the African American community. The park was across from the cemetery until it closed in 1949. Mount Ararat was the first African-American cemetery, opened in April 1869.

11. In September 1925, Deford Bailey made his first radio appearance on Fred Exum’s WDAD, a Nashville station. Bailey would go on to become the Grand Ole Opry’s first African-American star. Often referred to as the “Harmonica Wizard”, Bailey is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Roy Acuff, right, watches DeFord Bailey make his Grand Ole Opry show debut at the new Grand Ole Opry home on December 14, 1974, on Bailey's 75th birthday.  Acuff credited Bailey with helping his early career.
At the dedication of a DeFord Bailey historic marker near Bellwood, Tennessee on May 15, 1991, his son DeFord Bailey Jr. plays one of his father's tunes on the harmonica while about 60 members of family and friends listen to him.  A new state historic marker has been erected for Bailey, a founding member of the Grand Ole Opry and the first African American to achieve country music fame, on the side of Highway 70 near the Wilson-Smith county line.

12. In the late 1800s, Minnie Lou Crosthwaite became the first African American person to take and pass the Professor’s Examination. At the age of 17, she received her teacher training at Fisk University. She also earned medical degrees from Meharry Medical College and Chicago Homeopathic Medical College.

Minnie, along with her husband, Scott, became two of the first four African-American teachers in Nashville’s segregated public school system. Scott would become the first African-American Nashville-area principal at Belle View School.

13. In 1969, Avon Williams became the first African-American senator elected from the state of Tennessee.

14. While in high school, Oprah Winfrey received a full scholarship to Tennessee State University after winning a public speaking contest. She began working in local media and became the youngest and first African American news anchor on Nashville’s WLAC-TV, now WTVF-TV.

15. On March 4, 1833, Alphonso Sumner, a free African-American man, opened the first black school in Nashville. The white community was so upset that they publicly flogged him in 1836, forcing him to leave Nashville for Cincinnati.

16. On September 9, 1957, the schools in Nashville were desegregated.

17. Built in 1960, Starday-King Sound Studios (originally Starday Sound) was one of the busiest studios in town. From 1970 to 1975, James Brown recorded several hits such as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”, “Super Bad” and “Hot Pants”. The building has been vacant since 2000.

18. In 1946, Charles S. Johnson was named the first African-American president of Fisk University.

Dr. Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University in February 1951

19. In 1971, Nashville-born David Crosthwait was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), making him the first African-American member. Crosthwait was responsible for creating heating systems for large buildings such as New York’s Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall.

20. In 1966, Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown aka “Dr. D” became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Tennessee General Assembly.

21. In 1992, Jesse Russell received a patent for his work designing digital cellular base stations, inventing the digital cell phone.

22. In 1991, the Tennessee Tribune was founded by Rosetta Irvin Miller-Perry, making her the first African-American woman editor in the state of Tennessee.

23. After breaking down barriers and winning countless awards, Charley Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.

An exuberant Charley Pride sings for the audience after receiving a medallion with the family of Faron Young commemorating their 2000 inductions into the Country Music Hall of Fame March 13, 2001. This was the first official event of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum since moving to its new home on 5th Avenue South.

These last five are recent events that shed light on a potentially positive future.

24. On November 5, 2020, the Metro Council approved the ordinance to create Representative John Lewis Way, beginning at the corner of Jefferson Street and 5th Avenue through downtown to the corner of Oak Street.

25. The National Museum of African American Music opened on January 18, 2021.

26. On March 4, 2021, Slim + Husky’s became the first African-American company on Broadway.

27. The Nathan Bedford Forrest statue along Interstate 65 was removed on December 7, 2021.

The Nathan Bedford Forrest statue was removed along Interstate 65 on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee.

28. Le Frist has an upcoming exhibit for Alma W. Thomas who was the first African American woman to have a solo at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Contemporary Nashville artist, LeXander Bryant’s work will also be on display.

Happy Black History Month!

Jerry Pentecost is the drummer for the Old Crow Medicine Show.

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