By A.J. Dugger III
There is a lot of history behind Nashville’s historic Jefferson Street. Half a century ago, Jefferson Street was one of the most successful African American neighborhoods in the city.
Recent years have seen the community plagued by drugs and crime, but several community leaders have different plans of action to rescue this special part of North Nashville.
Retired attorney Edward Kindall self-published a book last January called “A Walk Down Historic Jefferson Street.” Kindall lived near Jefferson Street for many years and witnessed the ups and downs of the community there.
He wrote that between the 1940s and 1970s, the businesses were doing great and residents lived everywhere from The Jefferson Street Bridge to where the campus of Tennessee State University stands today.
During those days of segregation, Jefferson Street had the most success. African-Americans bonded with each other and supported each others’ businesses and venues. Kindall described segregation as a “silver lining.” At that time, the neighborhood’s residents spent time in barbershops, hair salons, bars, churches, gas stations and drug stores. It was a time when everyone was well-dressed, including the poorest of the poor.
“You could smell the barbeque pits,” said Wesley Kassir, who lived on Jefferson Street 40 years ago. “People cared about each other and about their yards. They cared about this community! It was a real family atmosphere. Doctors, teachers, barbers, labor workers, whatever you were, we all had a good time and socialized.”
Many people blame the construction of Interstate 40 through North Nashville for the gradual decline of the historic neighborhood. Kindall explained that the “intrusion” of Interstate 40 is what broke up the heart of the community.
Since that happened, parts of Jefferson Street have become dysfunctional and divided, he said. However, not everyone agrees. “The interstate was only the beginning of the problem,” said Janice Jones, a retired nurse who lived in North Nashville for 55 years. “These hooligans moved in and starting committing crimes. It used to be safe here 40 years ago. Black folks were supporting each other and businesses were thriving.”
Jones paused to collect herself. “Now they’re over here killing each other and abusing drugs. It’s ridiculous.” Kassir agrees. “We showed unity back then. We supported each other. But somewhere in the years after segregation and Civil Rights, we lost our way and turned on each other. This neighborhood hasn’t been the same since.”
Not everything on Jefferson Street has gone downhill. In 1994, an organization was formed by longtime Jefferson Street residents, business owners, homeowners and developers called Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership to provide a jump-start to Jefferson Street.
Their mission is to “develop, foster and promote cooperative economic development through re-visitation, acquisition, education and public safety programs in North Nashville.” As of April 2013, more than 111 contributors and organizations are part of JUMP’s membership including lawyers, dentists, doctors, musicians, barbers, ministers, writers, retailers, hair stylists ans restaurateurs.
Bishop Walker, the senior pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Nashville for over 21 years, is planning to build a dream center on Jefferson Street. “Our goal is to build the Dream Center debt-free,” he said. “We’re hoping to have The Dream Center up and running within the next five years. God told me in a dream that this is what He wants to see on Jefferson Street,” Walker explained.
The Dream Center will have a coffee shop, state-of-the-art nursery, and recreational complex with a gym, dance studio and other options. “It was necessary to do something and make an investment in our community,” said Walker. “What we’re planning is a real balanced center designed to promote family and safety in the community.”
Kassir supports Walker’s plans and hopes to help in any way that he can. “I go to Mt. Zion sometimes and Walker is the real deal,” said Kassir. “Years ago I used to get my hair cut at J.T. Smith’s barbershop (on Jefferson Street). I’ve got a lot of great memories here. We need to save this neighborhood and I think with the right people on board, we can do it.”
Snapshots is an occasional look at African-American communities in and around the Nashville area.