NASHVILLE, TN — Long before so-called urban renewal bulldozed its way through North Nashville, coupled with the use of imminent domain laws that took away a lot of people’s property and permanently changed the sensibility of numerous neighborhoods, music was an important part of Jefferson Street. It was well known across the nation for its array of nightclubs and music-related businesses.
One of Etta James’ finest LPs was recorded live at the Main Era in the early ‘60s. Many top R&B, blues, soul and jazz performers regularly appeared in Jefferson Street clubs, and WLAC often referenced what had happened the previous night in a club during their late-night radio shows via “Randy’s” and “Ernie’s” that went not only across the United States but around the world.
So when the initial plans were announced for a National Black Music Museum to be located right at the intersection of Rosa Parks and Jefferson Street, it seemed like the ideal location. This would be shrine to the legends of Black music nationwide, and also a way to commemorate the achievements and accomplishments of great African American performers in a manner not seen here since the demise of the “Night Train to Nashville” exhibits at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. But now, unfortunately, it seems that this was merely a deception.
Instead the plans now are to put the new State Museum in that space, and relegate the proposed National Black African American Museum to a side street downtown, in a section much better known for country music. That is both disrespectful and inaccurate. If there’s going to be a Black Music Museum, it should be on Jefferson Street, or at the very least in the Black community or where the Farmers Market stands. Here is a failing business subsidized by tax payers money.
This very city government once destroyed all of the African American Business on Jefferson Street where there was loss of income, businesses, homes and the city turned its back. The city now wants to dictate to the African American Community where it wants the Museum and once again treat African Americans who elected them to office as 2nd class citizens with no rights or input for a project that is the African American Community project. It is the most racist effort this city has had for the last 20 years.
All one has to do is look around at other cities to see the right way that Museums honor their constituency. Savannah, Georgia’s Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum is located at 460 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, five blocks south of the Visitors Information Center in Savannah. Chattanooga’s Bessie Smith Cultural Center is located at 200 E. Martin Luther King Blvd in that city. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is at 450 Mulberry Street, once the site of the famous Lorraine Motel.
All these places are prominently situated within or near the primary or central Black communities and/or business districts in these cities. They are also target destinations of Black history/cultural tours that are designated to high- light Black progress and achievement.
None are considered afterthoughts, relegated to side streets, or have entrances in alley ways or away from main areas. Each is viewed as a primary locale, somewhere the city’s tourist and convention leaders want presented as a major attraction and prominently featured as emblematic of important developments within that city.
Now while some folks who are descendants of slaves, in particular those sitting on its board and in its leadership positions, view the recently presented plans as equivalent to these other showcase museums, it doesn’t seem that way to many other descendants of slaves in the Black community. It certainly didn’t to the 37 council members who openly expressed their dissatisfaction in a November 3 press conference.
The Tribune has sampled a lot of community opinion over the past two weeks, and there is unanimous agreement. We and they remain adamant about it being on Jefferson Street and/or situated in the Black community. There’s also a very easy solution to the problem. Simply relocate Farmer’s Market to the designated area downtown intended now for the Black Music Museum. It might reinvigorate that Market, which now largely sits ignored for much of the time, and would also free up the space right next to the State Museum and allow BOTH places to flourish and serve as tourist showcases.
Black music is and remains a key part of the Music City hierarchy, although it doesn’t generate as much publicity or income as country music. Still, there are many notable and noteworthy Black musicians here, and numerous sessions happen- ing on a regular basis.
It would be a great thing if the accomplishments of Deford Bailey, Doc Cheatham, Bobby Hebb, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Fairfield Four and a host of others regularly got the identical exposure and recognition given to Music Row. Contemporary Christian, rock, pop, even dance and heavy metal regularly get more attention and media coverage than various Black idioms, something this museum could change.
But if it’s not going to get the attention and spotlight it deserves, it will do more harm than good. There is still plenty of time to ensure that the Museum gets the proper treatment, and is truly a significant part of this city’s portfolio, as well as the impressive showcase for the art form advertised.
We urge those in charge to rethink the possibilities of locating the Black Music Museum on Jefferson Street. It makes good sense from both a business and cultural standpoint. If not there, then in the Black community. But wherever it’s built, make certain it isn’t treated like something the city really didn’t value or take seriously. The Black community would rather not see any Museum built than one that is a throwaway, located on a side street, and placed in a location far more suited and known for country than Black music.
It’s really the simple and smart thing to do: put the National Museum of African American Music on Jefferson Street, at Farmers Market site or do not build this museum in Nashville. Atlanta would be the better city for this museum.