By Rosetta Miller Perry
The findings are still being evaluated and final determinations have yet to be made, but early reports indicate there’s a good possibility, even a probability, that there are Blacks among the remains, bodies that weren’t moved or buried. If that proves the case, it’s another in a history of negative things done to the city’s African-American community.
Here are some things about the Fort Negley situation that ARE known. The United States Army went into several Black neighborhoods and forced people to work building establishments like Fort Negley. Supposedly they were going to be paid, but most never saw a dime. In essence it was slavery all over again, even as the Civil War was raging, and Abraham Lincoln was preparing the Emancipation Proclamation to formally end slavery in the Southern states. Meanwhile, the Army was engaging in the very conduct they were supposedly trying to eliminate.
Now when the remains are sorted out, it will be difficult to determine specific identities. But every effort should be made to find out how many Black bodies are included in these remains. Many of the Black workers on projects like Fort Negley didn’t even get the opportunity to go back to their homes. Instead, they stayed on the hillside, making it easy to work long hours and be accessible whenever needed. The Army even raided churches to get workers. Whatever the number of Blacks ultimately determined, each deserves recognition with their own graves and markers.
Nashville’s historical record, both the distant and recent past, is full of injustices and slights to Black Americans. We only have to go back a few weeks and there’s the specter of the Mayor announcing she’s switching General Hospital over to outpatient status without notifying any key leaders in the Black community. Instead, while they were gathered together, she announced plans for funding a new soccer stadium for a team that as yet doesn’t even exist. So it’s easy to find dollars to fund stadiums for billionaires, but too fiscally risky to keep General Hospital going.
Later, after there was plenty of anger and outrage expressed at both the action and the way things were handled, the Mayor apologized and subsequently formed a committee with plenty of Black participation to decide the hospital’s ultimate fate. But does anyone think she would have done things the same way if it were a predominantly white institution involved, especially one located in an area like Brentwood or Belle Meade?
How about the continuing lack of Black male presence in the Barry administration? Or the reluctance to create a Citizens Review board to oversee the police department in the wake of continuing problems between it and the Black community? Despite the chief’s admonitions, there are plenty of reasons why there needs to be outside oversight on the police, and they existed long before the Clemmons incident.
The chronology includes the end of reconstruction through Jim Crow and separate but equal schools and urban renewal initiatives that resulted in the Interstate Highway bulldozing through the Black community and destroying numerous key institutions. Move ahead to the present and we see disproportionate resources going to development in white areas vs. Black ones, and the proposed Black music museum being treated like a stepchild as opposed to the State Museum. The question remains when do the insults and slights to the Black community end?
There are certainly things that can be done if this administration is serious about correcting the city’s long held (and rightly so) image of being hostile and indifferent to Black progress. These include taking steps to properly identify and recognize ALL remains at Fort Negley, making sure Meharry’s status is not endangered or threatened by any new arrangements involving its students, keeping General Hospital a complete rather than partial facility, and naming Black males to key offices in city government.
In addition, there must be more transparency with specifics for what is being done to ensure African-American participation in the construction boom. There’s also the ongoing issues of affordable and low income housing, two separate but related areas that directly affect large portions of the Black community, the working class and the poor.
None of these can rectify the horrors of segregation, or decades of unjust treatment in the courts, the impact of the so-called “War on Drugs,” or police profiling. But they represent a fresh start in creating a climate of understanding and co-operation between the city and the Black constituency that has been ignored and overlooked for too many decades.