By Andre M. Perry and Anthony Barr
NASHVILLE, TN — North Nashville’s famed Jefferson Street was once a booming hub for the city’s Black middle class. During the Jim Crow era, Jefferson Street was known for its thriving business and entertainment districts that were supported by key institutions, including four historically Black colleges and universities (Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry College, and the American Baptist College). Like Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, Jefferson Street provided an area in which residents could deposit checks in Black-owned banks, shop at Black-owned stores, and dine at Black-owned restaurants. It was also a central hub of the burgeoning Nashville music scene, with music legends such as Etta James and Jimi Hendrix performing in the clubs that lined the street.
But in the late 1960s, Nashville city planners built interstate highway I-40 in the middle of North Nashville, decimating the commercial corridor and displacing business owners and residents. A 2018 article in theNashville Scene detailed how white planners did not want a highway to affect property values around Vanderbilt University, so they routed the highway through the Black-majority neighborhood instead. According to the article, the development led to the demolition of 650 homes, which displaced 1,400 residents. Real estate values for the remaining properties dropped by 30%, compounding the loss of familial and communal wealth.
Not surprisingly, today, North Nashville is one of the most economically precarious locations in the metropolitan area. The neighborhood where Jefferson Street sits posts the highest incarceration rate in the nation (14%), according to research by our colleagues at Brookings. This must be contextualized in a discussion of the area’s rampant poverty; that same Brookings report notes that child poverty in this ZIP code is a stunning 42%, compared to the most recent official national rate of 14%. And despite the presence of four HBCUs, the college attainment rate is only 30%, compared to the statewide rate of 43%, according to the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to boosting college attainment nationwide.
The correlation between poverty and incarceration is well documented. However, we shouldn’t view poverty as causing criminality and higher incarceration. Rather, both are symptomatic of the systemic racism that resulted in the destruction of assets that increase social and economic mobility. Federal, state, and local governments have yet to provide recompense to the residents of North Nashville (and other areas) for federally backed programs and initiatives that destroyed Black neighborhoods and the wealth and opportunities those places provided.
Recently, Nashville’s city government, chamber of commerce, and other civic organizations and nonprofits partnered to develop a collective strategy to boost college enrollment, with the hope of revitalizing these communities through better job opportunities corresponding to degree attainment. These efforts come on the heels of the Drive to 55 statewide initiative that then-Governor Bill Haslam introduced in 2017, which set a goal of getting 55% of state residents to receive a college degree or certificate by 2025.
But without naming or addressing systemic racism, efforts to increase educational attainment in order to increase labor participation and reduce poverty may miss a significant part of the problem. Increasing the number of credentials won’t restore the wealth and opportunities that were extracted by bigoted transportation and housing policies. Initiatives to increase educational attainment must address what caused the damage in the first place. In other words, North Nashville residents need reparations.