NASHVILLE, TN — Originally a footpath from the Cumberland River to the Hadley Plantation, Jefferson Street was once known as one of America’s best known districts of jazz, rhythm and blues. It served as the home to artists such as Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Pats Domino and Memphis Slim. “This was the only place black folks could find logic and enjoy themselves without being Jim Crowed,” said Dr. Learotha Williams, Professor of African American History at Tennessee State University.
What was known as the “Golden Era,” ended in the 1960s once the construction of Interstate 40 segregated the community, he said. “The construction was used in a way to display a poor population; hundreds of businesses were wiped out and tons of families and homes were displaced,” Williams said.
In 2012, Williams assisted in an attempt to restore the origins of the community. His goal was to turn to something new but not forsake the past. “Kwame Lillard gave me a tour of Nashville and that’s when I came up with the idea to create a project that will get the community interacting with each other and also pass on relevant information continuously,” Williams said.
A celebration on Sept. 28 of that year unveiled his creation, the “Jefferson Street Gateway to Heritage” project, a pedestrian plaza that commemorates the African American history of Nashville and Jefferson Street.
The plaza is divided into five pillars that symbolize: education, athletics, music, civil rights and religion and contains around 80 photographs and narratives about people whom have contributed to the rich legacy of Jefferson Street.
According to Sharon Hurt, JUMP’s Executive Director and Metro Council Woman at Large, there were a series of meetings held during that time where names were presented. Those presented most often were selected for display on the plaza.
Among those depicted are Ronald Lawson, who was inducted into the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) Hall of Fame; Erica Gilmore who was elected to the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County Council in 2007, re-elected in 2011 and elected to council at large in 2015; Marion Barry who attended Fisk University and was involved in the Civil Rights Movement serving as the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and eventually became mayor of Washington, D.C. and Edith Taylor Langster, former member of Nashville Metro Council representing the 21st District. The project was a collaboration between public and private sectors that featured the works of local artists James Threalkill and Michael McBride.
The design of the open-air plaza was to reenergize Nashville’s historic Jefferson Street while making a place that represents community pride and history for current residents and visitors. Williams said when he thinks of North Nashville, he thinks of how the community transformed from a place of un-accommodation to a place of recreation. “I’m poor at predicting the future but the project bloomed into something bigger than I expected,” said Williams.
The plaza was intended to be phase one of a multi-phase project but it requires more funding and those plans have not yet been met, according to Hurt. The goal has been met to turn a dark, ugly, desolate piece into a beautiful project and today many Nashville tours start at the plaza because it provides the history of the North Nashville community.
Within five years the plaza has improved the quality of life, stimulated growth and abided by the missions and goals of the organizations that invested time and money into the project, Williams said.
He added that he hopes to hand the project off to students of Tennessee State and Fisk Universities so he can move on to something else while the plaza continues to develop.