tags: civil rights, African American history, music, Nashville, urban renewal
Francesca T. Royster is a professor of English at DePaul University, author of Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era and Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon, and coeditor of “Uncharted Country,” a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies on race and country music.
For four years in the Seventies, my father moonlighted as a session musician and live performer in Nashville, while also teaching English classes at Fisk University. He was a conga player trained on the beaches of Chicago’s Lake Michigan, but arrived in Nashville in 1970 as a newly minted professor, the first in his family to finish college. My mother, my sister, and I moved with him. A few nights a week, he and his band would play psychedelic jazz at Exit/In and other spots, or on recordings of country and folk albums by artists who heard him in local clubs. What he found in Nashville was a meeting of desires: a city with a music industry that was booming and almost all-consuming; a Black community that had become fragmented and somewhat wrecked, but was still producing great music; and within himself, a desire for joy in the face of an eight-year marriage that was in trouble.
Our move to Nashville was less a migration than a return, with a difference. My parents were second-generation Chicagoans. Most of my great-grandparents moved from Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas in the 1910s and 1920s. (But in the complexity of many people’s family histories, not everyone migrated from the South. My great-grandmother Pauline, a Polish immigrant, met and married my African American great-grandfather in Cleveland and then made a home in Chicago in 1919.) No one had ever moved back to the South. While Nashville wasn’t where the family came from, it may have represented the South that they broke from. But the struggles of the South had their own Northern version. My grandfather on my father’s side had served in the South Pacific in World War II with the U.S. Marines, and when he came home to Chicago in 1945, he worked several jobs, often at the same time, including foundry laborer, insurance agent, post office clerk, janitor, and drugstore delivery person, all to support his family of eight children on Chicago’s West Side. My mother’s grandmother, who raised her on the South Side in the 1940s, had been a little more prosperous, once owning a building kept afloat with boarders, but over the years she had to constantly fight to keep ownership of it from the bank. Like many of the other women in my family, another great-grandmother worked as a domestic for white people, in this case a wealthy lawyer and his family in Wilmette, Illinois. When my parents met at University of Illinois at Navy Pier, both were struggling to pay for school. They were both in a university African dance troupe, my mother a dancer and my father a drummer. They discovered that they shared a desire to get out and make something new.
When the job offer came from Fisk, my parents responded to a return to the South differently. For my father, Fisk glimmered with possibility, as a place to launch his career as a professor of African American literature at the school where W. E. B. Du Bois taught and the Fisk Jubilee Singers brought Black spirituals to the world. But my mother didn’t want to leave Chicago, or her mother and grandmother, who were deeply involved in our lives, providing daily childcare and emotional support. My father left without us for a few weeks, and they had the chance to imagine a life apart. Reluctantly, my mother decided to move with him. But their reconciliation proved fragile.
When we arrived in Nashville in 1970 when I was three, the city was in the midst of great change, for better or for worse, especially for the Black community. It might have felt a little like walking into a barfight that had ended just moments before: chairs in disarray, glasses broken, people bleeding, a door left open. And a fight could erupt again at any moment. In spring of 1960, the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Fisk students John Lewis and Diane Nash (who had also come to Nashville from Chicago), launched a powerful campaign to desegregate Nashville’s public facilities. Fisk had been the site of powerful protests, including a 1967 uprising led by students from that university as well as Tennessee State, just over a mile from Jefferson Street, a street which was at the time plagued by bankruptcies, closures, and neglect. Before that, Jefferson Street had been Nashville’s vibrant Black musical and commercial center, home to nightclubs that were part of an important r&b scene, featuring, among others, Etta James and Jimi Hendrix as key performers.
Starting in the 1950s, Jefferson Street had been targeted by the city for “urban renewal,” and fractured by the building of I-40, against the wishes of the community’s leaders. By the early Seventies, approximately six hundred twenty homes and twenty-seven apartment buildings had been demolished. The presence of I-40 also geographically isolated Fisk from Tennessee State and other entities in the Black community of North Nashville. Journalist Steven Hale describes the ongoing trauma of the destruction of this community as “root shock,” borrowing a term from Mindy Fullilove, a professor of urban policy and health, to describe the effects on people who have experienced mass displacement events.
At the same time, two and a half miles away, Music Row was exploding. According to journalist Paul Hemphill, by 1970, Music Row boasted the second-largest recording industry in the country, second only to New York City. It included forty studios, fifty-three record labels, and four hundred music talent agencies. Taking over what Hemphill acknowledges as “a vast Negro section” of the city, the presence of the music industry raised property values, pushing out Black homes and businesses. He writes, “When the city announced elaborate plans some five years ago for Music City Boulevard, land values on Music Row boomed overnight. One corner lot on Seventeenth sold for $39,000 in January of 1965 and the buyer turned down $160,000 for it the following January. A 50-foot lot could be laid for $15,000 in ’61 but was priced at $80,000 five years later.” As Nashville journalist Jewly Hight notes, at the same time that I-40 was being built, “bisecting and decimating neighborhoods and the live music scene along the Jefferson Street corridor, the city was giving institutional heft/legitimacy/respectability to Music Row, perhaps most notably by erecting the original Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum there in 1967. The interstate construction was also completed that decade.”