Way Past Time for Nashville’s Civil Rights Museum

Fifty two years ago, on March 28, 1968, a photo taken by Ernest Withers during the Memphis sanitation workers strike which came to embody a more universal struggle for civil rights.

By Rosetta Miller-Perry

It should disgust every citizen who knows anything about the history of social justice movements in America that Nashville, one of the first places where the fervor and dedication of students and citizens led to the sit-ins and helped elevate the struggle for racial equality to new heights, doesn’t have a dedicated, stand-alone Civil Rights Museum. It’s even more aggravating to know that you can get in your car and drive to Memphis, or Alabama, or even for heaven’s sake Mississippi and visit million dollar buildings that pay tribute to the legacy of African Americans.

That’s right, Jackson, Mississippi has a Civil Rights Museum. Alabama has multiple ones. Memphis has the National

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

Civil Rights Museum and others. The state of Tennessee has more than 10 Civil Rights Museums, but Nashville    has no institution whose sole purpose is to chronicle, collect and celebrate African American  history from slavery to the present. 

Let no one think that I am denigrating the forthcoming National Museum of African American Music, or dismissing its importance. Our music is vital, and has been the soundtrack of this nation for many decades.  However, that building is solely about music and also is a national venue, designed to celebrate all types of performers, idioms and events. 

We need something that highlights our history as a race, with a pronounced local focus and emphasis. Nashville is home to Fisk, Tennessee State University, American Baptist College and Meharry Medical College. Yet there’s no museum where all the artifacts, documents, photos, personal histories and many other things celebrating the Black experience are collectively assembled.

Look at Kansas City, the home of both the Negro Leagues Baseball and Jazz Museums. When you walk in those places, it feels like you’ve been transported back in time. They have masterfully depicted the complete history of both Black baseball and jazz in a magnificent way.

Nashville has done a tremendous job of building white museums for white folks and there are plenty of art museums and shrines that honor Nashville’s white heroes. But what does it have representing Black achievement? Sure there are markers here and there, the Civil Rights Room in the downtown library (which is great) and there are periodic programs at Vanderbilt and other places that recall vital moments in Nashville’s Civil Rights history once in a while.  Still,  none of that can substitute for a genuine Civil Rights Museum.

It seems a shame that I am still asking for a Civil Rights Museum again  in 2020. I have asked each person running for Mayor for the last 13 years. They agree with me while running but once in office they develop amnesia.    

Now, we’ve had people in the streets over a month protesting police misconduct and brutality. The hideous bust of Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest even has a white Museum waiting for his arrival. 

Black folks in Nashville are tired of being ignored and relegated to a second- class status soon to be third-class citizenship. 

Finally, remember that this city bulldozed and erased thriving Black businesses especially in North Nashville, yet even today still continues the stench of overt segregation in housing, business, and employment. There’s still a lot more work to do in all those areas, but the major task remaining now is in the area of cultural commemoration and the establishment of a Nashville Civil Rights Museum. The time for it is 2020, not next year or 10 years from now.

Shame on  Tennessee State Capitol Legislators for watching other Tennessee cities build Civil Rights Museums while you honored the bust of that Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest for years.  Now it is time to honor our African American Heritage.

Please be advised that there is a National Civil Rights Museum – Memphis, Slave Haven Underground Railroad

National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

Museum – Memphis, Stax Museum of American Soul Music – Memphis, Tina Turner Museum and Flagg Grove School – Brownsville, Withers Collection Museum and Gallery – Memphis, Beck Cultural Center – Knoxville, Green McAdoo Cultural Center – Clinton, Bessie Smith Cultural Center – Chattanooga, McLemore House Museum – Franklin, Dunbar Carver Museum – Brownsville.  This is only few African American Museums in Tennessee.

More shameful is that Nashville has at least 26 white museums and again 0 for the African American community.

There are two African American experts who have written many books that should be in Nashville’s Civil Rights Museum covering Nashville’s African American Heritage. One was the late Dr. Reavis Mitchell and Dr. Bobby Lovett. Dr. Mitchell served as one of the principal organizers of the Nashville Conference on African American History and Culture. He published several profiles of “Leaders of Afro-American Nashville.” He authored Thy Loyal Children Make Their Way: A History of Fisk University Since 1866 and along with Nashville historian Dr. Bobby Lovett co-authored “Of Promises Kept: A History of Nashville’s Citizens Bank,” twelve entries in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History of

Chattanooga’s Bessie Smith Cultural Center

Culture and hundreds  of historical monographs in journals, magazines, and newspapers. Based on his highly regarded reputation among historians of African American History, Dr. Mitchell was invited to contribute a chapter to the highly influential book The Souls of Black Folk: One Hundred Years Later entitled “Alexandria, Tennessee: Slumbering in the Shadow of Progress.”

Dr. Bobby L. Lovett is an award-winning author, historian, speaker and retired professor of Afro-American History. His 2005 book, The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History, won the “Tennessee History Book Award” by the Tennessee Library Association and Tennessee Historical Commission. Lovett’s articles have appeared in several history books, encyclopedias and scholarly journals. He has served on the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Historical Society and Editorial Board of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.  He is the author of: A Touch of Greatness: A History of Tennessee State University (2013), America’s Historically Black Colleges: A Narrative History 1837-2009 (2011), How It Came To Be (2006), The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History (2005),  The African American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930 (1999), A Black Man’s Dream: 100 Years (1993), Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee (1996) CO-AUTHORED BOOKSThe Art of William Edmondson (2000)Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee (1996) and many more books profiling Tennessee African Americans.

These men have our history and we need that history in a Civil Rights Museums.  Out of all your museums no one can match the credentials of these two men.

Don’t throw me a crumb and say well you have a National Museum of African American Music being built, I say to you and “you have 26 Museums in this city and that not one has anything to do with African American history.”

Let’s see this city really do something substantive for African Americans. We help elect Mayor after Mayor and once they get in office, they throw us under the bus.  

Sometimes, I feel like Fannie Lou Hamer whom I met with many times in Memphis during those civil rights days, “I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.”

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