History Repeats Itself in North Nashville

About Nashville

Fifty years after I-40’s construction, a cycle of poverty and displacement churns again in 37208

Map: Google Earth

By the time you read this, Lashananda Kee will have left.

The house on the 1500 block of 14th Avenue North where she has lived with her children and grandchildren is being sold out from under them, and they were the last ones to know it.

“We didn’t even know that the landlord was selling the house,” says Kee, who is 39. She’s sitting on her front stoop holding an unlit cigarette as the afternoon sun beats down on North Nashville. Her grandson, 3-year-old Jeremiah, occasionally peeks out the front door and waves.

“He’s been selling this house since September, and we just found out in December, around Christmastime, when we got a whole lot of people coming in and out of our house talking about how he was selling the house. We didn’t know nothing about it.”

The matter ended up in court, she says, and a judge gave the family two months to leave. On this afternoon, just days before the May 25 deadline, the house is nearly empty. Inside, part of the hallway ceiling is caving in — something Kee says her landlord hasn’t bothered to address. Online listings market the house as suitable for gutting or tearing down. But at $675 a month, it was a place Kee could afford while living on government assistance — although toward the end of the month she has to ask around for help feeding the kids. Now she’s moving the family to Dothan, Ala.

“I’m from Nashville, Tennessee,” says Kee. “I don’t know anything about Dothan. I just found somewhere cheaper where I can live and won’t get thrown out of my house. Nashville, for a two-bedroom, it’s $1,200 dollars.”

Lashananda Kee with daughter Zaquita and grandchildren Jeremiah, Marcus and Quinton outside their home on 14th Avenue North

Kee grew up in this area, like her mother and her mother’s mother. Along with her two youngest children — a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old — she also has custody of her 22-year-old daughter’s four children, all of them 10 or younger. She doesn’t know the 22-year-old’s whereabouts anymore.

“She’s on drugs so bad, I don’t know where she is,” Kee says.

The neighborhood is changing in some ways, but in other ways, she says, it’s not so different from how it was when she was coming up. Kee says she’s seen people killed, shot at and, in one instance, “a woman get her head busted with a brick over drugs.”

This is 37208, the heart of historically black North Nashville and a community in which Nashville’s proud progress has often had a poisonous side. The local and federal government’s treatment of North Nashville for at least a century has ranged from neglect to outright racist hostility. Around 50 years ago, the construction of Interstate 40 displaced more than a thousand black residents, destroyed a business and cultural district on Jefferson Street that was thriving against all odds, and slashed across the neighborhood of the 37208 ZIP code, cutting it in half.

Now, some 150 years after freed slaves began settling here, the cycle of displacement is churning again. Gentrification driven by Nashville’s ascendancy as a New South metropolis is uprooting scores of black families and sending shock waves through a community that has rarely known stability. All the while, the poisoned tree has borne fruit. North Nashville is plagued by a lack of opportunity and scant public investment, and alongside its rich cultural history is a history of poverty, crime, violence, aggressive policing and mass incarceration. A Brookings Institution study released in March looking at people born between 1980 and 1986 found that in the 37208 ZIP code, 1 out of every 7 people of that generation found themselves imprisoned in their 30s. That’s the highest rate in the country.

From her stoop, Kee points up and down the street at houses that have been sold, the families who had been renting them put out with little warning.

“They’re pushing all the black people out and putting all the white people in, and it’s not fair. Y’all just pushing us out of our domain and where we live and what we know.”

Later, she adds, “I don’t think it’s fair, and something needs to be done about it, but who am I?”

South of the house that will be her home for just a few more days, past another home for sale and another new build, the street runs into a thicket of trees with the interstate looming on the other side.

The Rev. Ed Sanders says he “stopped in Nashville for two years, 45 years ago.”

Born and raised in Memphis, where he was pastored by famed civil rights leader James Lawson, Sanders left Tennessee for school but came to Nashville in the early 1970s to work at Fisk University. In 1981 he founded Metro Interdenominational Church, and he has spent the decades since leading his congregation and devoting himself to, among other things, providing care and services to people with HIV and AIDS.

The church still sits on Eleventh Avenue North where it was built almost 40 years ago, although it has recently gained some tall-and-skinny neighbors — trendy new homes in various stages of construction are visible from the church’s property. The memory of segregation is never far away. Buena Vista Park is adjacent to the church, but in the neighborhood it’s known as White City Park. City leaders closed its public pool in the 1960s rather than being forced to allow African-Americans to swim in it.

On a rainy May morning, Sanders is sitting in the empty sanctuary, talking about America’s oldest disease, racism. He speaks in a deep voice, the kind that carries wisdom picked up over decades.

“The metaphor that I use in relationship to what has happened to this community is very much one that I relate to how HIV works,” he says. “If you think of it in terms of HIV — and I want to call the virus racism, classism — if you end up being infected by the virus, if it goes untreated, then that’s when it can evolve to where you have AIDS. When you get AIDS, what that means is that your immune system has become so compromised that it makes you vulnerable to opportunistic diseases that otherwise you would never be vulnerable to. I often describe what’s going on with gentrification exactly that way. The immune system of our communities was undermined and destroyed.”

That diagnosis can be made quite convincingly, even without reference to slavery and the racist terrorism that followed its abolition. Like black communities in cities across the country, starting in the 1930s, North Nashville was subject to a racist housing policy that would later become known as “redlining.” So-called “security maps” adopted by the Federal Housing Administration color-coded neighborhoods, with red representing areas that were “hazardous” for lenders. These areas were almost invariably poor and black. The practice meant not only that African-Americans were largely excluded from homeownership and the chance to accumulate wealth through it, but also that any investment in their neighborhoods was discouraged by the FHA — the very agency that could ensure it.

We are still living in the society that those old redlining maps helped shape. In 2017, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago released an analysis of the 1930s maps showing that lower-graded neighborhoods experienced an increase in racial segregation that began to decline as late as 1970. In lower-graded areas, they also found evidence of a decline in home ownership, house values and credit scores that “persists today.”

A "security map" of Nashville produced by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation ca. 1935

But even as redlining and Jim Crow laws waged war on the economic health and physical well-being of African-Americans, the main thoroughfare in North Nashville became a vibrant street that African-Americans in Nashville could proudly call their own.

“Jefferson Street was something very special in the middle of Jim Crow,” says Dr. Learotha Williams, an associate professor of African-American and public history at Tennessee State University, who runs the North Nashville Heritage Project. “But it wasn’t like these folks had a choice, because this was all that they had. So they made it something almost magical.”

Some of that magic is commemorated at Jefferson Street Sound, Lorenzo Washington’s “mini-museum” of the street’s history. Inside an unassuming white house near the intersection of Jefferson and 21st Avenue North, Washington preserves the memory of a strip that sizzled with R&B and jazz music emanating from clubs like the Del Morocco and Club Baron — clubs that hosted artists like Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Little Richard and Marion James. Washington laughs as he recalls how he met his first wife during the street’s heyday: She and some friends were walking down Jefferson, trying to thumb a ride to the Del Morocco, and he picked them up.

An essay on the history of Jefferson Street written by Fisk University professor and Tennessee Historical Commission chair Reavis Mitchell Jr. describes how the street evolved. What was once a wagon road on which newly freed African-American women and children could be seen walking to a so-called “contraband camp” at Fort Gillem — the site where Fisk would later be established — became a thriving business and entertainment district.

“In the age of Jim Crow, black Nashvillians filled the Ritz Theater to enjoy first release movies, where they were free to enter through the front door and sit in the main audience,” writes Mitchell.

The street also had department stores operated by Jewish merchants, and even some with integrated staffs.

“The life-affirming bustle along Jefferson Street flowed through bakeries, hardware stores, service or gasoline stations, dry cleaning establishments (some of which offered made-to-order men’s apparel), insurance agencies, and shoe shops,” Mitchell writes.

The corridor was, and still is, home to African-American colleges like Meharry Medical College, what would become Tennessee State University and Fisk University, the latter of which would provide an academic home for figures like the writer and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells and civil rights leaders like Diane Nash and John Lewis.

At the same time, white political leaders were becoming increasingly preoccupied with eliminating urban “blight.” In Nashville, federally backed urban renewal projects — a redevelopment campaign that writer James Baldwin famously referred to as “Negro removal” — and the ostensibly anti-poverty Model Cities program sparked political and legal resistance from African-American communities.

But the cataclysmic event for North Nashville was the construction of I-40. It ripped through the 37208 ZIP code as the result of a deliberate calculation that black neighborhoods — and the culture and community within them — were more disposable than white enclaves. This was not unique to Nashville. In his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein writes that interstate construction was a popular slum-clearance tactic. He quotes Alfred Johnson, a leading lobbyist involved in the writing of the 1956 Federal Highway Act, recalling that some local government officials “expressed the view in the mid-1950s that the urban Interstates would give them a good opportunity to get rid of the local ‘niggertown.’ ”

Discussion of potential interstate routes across Tennessee began in the 1940s and continued through the ’50s and ’60s. In his book The Nashville Way: Racial Etiquette and the Struggle for Social Justice in a Southern City, historian Benjamin Houston writes that one possible I-40 route was abandoned because it veered too close to Belle Meade, the tony suburban home of the city’s white elite, and threatened Vanderbilt University and Baptist Hospital. Another route that followed Charlotte Pike was more appealing, Houston writes, because it avoided Centennial Park and Baptist Hospital and allowed for the use of “the widened streets as physical dividers between white and black neighborhoods, a tactic frequently employed at the time in Nashville and elsewhere.”

That route gained momentum despite some logistical and engineering concerns. Then something changed. Houston writes that what happened next is “murky,” but that at some point in 1955 or 1956, a new route was chosen — it would parallel Charlotte before making a sharp turn near 28th Avenue and tearing into North Nashville.

“None of the plans nor their implications were discussed with local residents, even though the route would virtually disembowel North Nashville,” Houston writes.

By 1967, a largely African-American 40-member group of community leaders called the I-40 Steering Committee had formed to fight the route. They argued that the interstate would isolate many black-owned businesses and destroy many others, and also displace residents. They said a shadowy planning process had prevented affected communities from knowing the plans until it was too late. The I-40 Steering Committee filed suit over the route in 1968, represented by attorneys Avon Williams and Z. Alexander Looby — eight years earlier Looby’s house on Meharry Boulevard had been bombed by segregationists. Among the people named in the suit was then-Mayor Beverly Briley, who had been elected in 1963 and would serve until 1975.

White leaders were largely dismissive of the group’s concerns. Sam Fleming, the president of Third National Bank at the time, urged the completion of the interstate. Interviewed by The Tennessean in January 1968, while standing next to black real estate developer Inman Otey, Fleming said, “I think that one of the great things about Nashville is that we always have known that the two races can work together.

“Working together, however, does not include the indulgence of whims that might delay by a year or more the completion of I-40’s route through the city,” he added.

The steering committee took its fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where its complaints were ultimately rejected. But the group’s warnings proved prescient. According to Metro figures, 1,400 Nashvillians were displaced by the construction of I-40 and I-265 (which would become I-65). Houston writes that “the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of interstate would demolish a hundred square blocks” and lead to “the demolition of approximately 650 homes and 27 apartment buildings.” According to the Tennessee State Museum, the value of remaining housing dropped more than 30 percent.

When the Rev. Ed Sanders got to Nashville in 1972, he says “the psychological scar, the community scar, the cultural scar was still very real.” And for many in the community, it still is.

When the Scene mentions I-40 while talking by phone to 93-year-old Evelyn Suggs, a longtime resident of the area, she interjects.

“I was involved in it and want to forget it,” she says. “It was terrible. I had to fight like hell.”

Age hasn’t diminished the fire in Suggs’ voice. She says she wishes she could talk longer about the subject, but she’s overseeing a roofing project at property she owns near Jefferson Street. As old newspaper clippings show, she did fight like hell, and she extracted one of the few concessions that highway planners made to the neighborhood. At one point, the interstate plan didn’t even include an exit in North Nashville, adding insult to injury. But Suggs, armed with education in history and political science and her own studies at the public library, gave them hell until they relented.

After she confronted a visiting representative from the federal government at a public meeting, she says, he looked over to the project engineers and told them bluntly to “put the exit where she wants it.” Says Suggs, the Jefferson Street exit, No. 207, is her exit. It comes off the highway right near Albion Street, where she lives.

“I tell you, we had to fight every step of the way,” she says.

In 2012, in collaboration with the Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership and Tennessee State University, among others, the city unveiled Gateway to Heritage Plaza at the I-40 underpass near the Jefferson Street exit. Columns beneath the interstate feature pictures and stories of people and events that, as a Metro press release put it, “have contributed to Jefferson Street’s unique place in history.”

Crystal deGregory is a scholar of black activism and historically black colleges and universities who lived in Nashville for nearly 20 years, earning history and education degrees from Vanderbilt, Tennessee State and Fisk before becoming the director of Kentucky State University’s Atwood Institute for Race, Education and the Democratic Ideal last year. She calls Gateway to Heritage Plaza lipstick on a pig.

“The history of black Nashville is relegated to the underpass of the interstate that destroyed the community,” she says. “And we’re supposed to be happy about that!”

Photos: Daniel Meigs

Mindy Fullilove, a professor of urban policy and health at The New School in New York, has coined a term for the unique trauma people experience after mass-displacement events like the ones that occurred in North Nashville in the mid-20th century. She calls it “root shock.” Simply put, it is the result of seeing one’s environment devastated — whether through natural disaster, government policy or gentrification — and it is an experience she believes is underestimated.

“Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them,” Fullilove writes in her 2004 book Root Shock. “We are more like Siamese twins, conjoined to the locations of our daily life, such that our emotions flow through places, just as blood flows through two interdependent people. We can, indeed, separate from our places, but it is an operation that is best done with care.”

An underlying story in the history of North Nashville over the past century is the ripping away — maliciously at times, recklessly at others — of black people’s “places.” Their “life world,” as Fullilove puts it.

“There are some things that evolved over generations in this community that are now lost,” says Sanders of Metro Interdenominational Church. “And there’s no clear evidence of how they’ll be recovered.”

He continues: “The question that people put to me sometimes when I’m very critical of what I see, they’ll say, ‘Well, what did you want, did you want it to stay a slum, did you want it to stay where things weren’t developed?’ I say, ‘No, I wanted to see it developed, but I wanted to see it developed in a way that was by and in the interests of the people who had established community there before.”

Black places and black people are disappearing again in North Nashville, demolished by development, raptured away by mass incarceration or in many cases, displaced amid gentrification. In December, The Tennessean published an analysis of new census data that showed a number of historically African-American neighborhoods had seen significant declines in their black populations over the past decade. In North Nashville, the black population dropped from 60 percent to 38 percent — the largest drop in the county.

Sekou Franklin, a Middle Tennessee State University professor and community activist, lives in 37208. The gentrification of this historically black community, he notes, has been enabled by some well-meaning black leaders who have backed pro-growth policies that haven’t resulted in equitable benefits for black Nashvillians.

“My neighborhood was historically a working-class black community, probably 95 percent,” says Sekou. “With gentrification, displacement taking place, probably greater than 50 percent of the neighborhood has flipped over or is on its way to flipping over.”

The influx of developers and home-flippers has acted as a new interstate, chewing up the vulnerable and putting immense pressure on everyone else. Franklin says that as a middle-class family with education and some good luck, he and his wife and daughter have been able to survive the tidal wave. But the calls and letters asking him to sell his home for well below market value number near 100 at this point, he says. It’s much harder for some of his neighbors who are renters, living on a tighter budget or possibly experiencing a personal tragedy of some sort. Sekou says he knows of at least four cases in which a renter has been pushed out — one had been living there for 30 years.

When Learotha Williams first moved to Nashville, he put out a call for residents to take pictures of the built environment. He knew much of what he saw in the community even 10 years ago wouldn’t last long.

“It’s going to look completely different, it’s going to have a new identity,” William says. “And I’m cognizant of the fact that neighborhoods are like people in many ways — they’re born, they mature, and then they die or they become something else. But I feel what we have going on in North Nashville is something akin to erasure, if you will.”

In the meantime, 37208 is home to evidence of both the new abundance Nashville so loves to celebrate and the suffering it seems intent on ignoring. The ZIP code contains the decrepit house being sold out from under Lashananda Kee and her family, as well as new seven-figure brownstones.

“Poverty has been a constant feature of this community, and it sort of drives me crazy when I think about it,” Williams says. “Things come out about Nashville being the ‘It City’ and all that, and that’s all well and good. But it’s very much like in the period of the 1890s in U.S. history, where you had great displays of wealth sitting right beside unimaginable poverty.”

Kentucky State’s deGregory speaks with resigned clarity when asked about the high poverty and incarceration rates in 37208.

“For better or worse, this will not be a reality for this ZIP code for much longer,” she says. “The displacement of black people in general, and the black poor in particular, from the heart of Nashville has been in motion for well over half a century, probably approaching closer to a century at this point.”

The dynamic is so familiar here, in this country and in this neighborhood, that the winners and losers seem almost predetermined.

“For [North Nashville’s] residents, it is the weight of history, and for developers and investors it’s the wind of history,” deGregory says. “The wind is at their backs.”

Photos: Daniel Meigs

The Brookings Institution study released in March highlighted the unsurprising link between a youth spent in poor, racially segregated communities and future incarceration. It also suggested that interventions early in such children’s lives can make a real difference. And in light of those factors, there is reason for both distress and hope to be found in North Nashville’s schools. These schools have a chance to do right by a new generation of black Nashvillians growing up in the wake of the city’s past failures.

Despite the significant demographic change in 37208 over the past decade — and more than half a century after desegregation — the area’s schools remain made up almost entirely of African-American students. All four of the elementary schools in the ZIP code have student populations that have been more than 90 percent black in recent years. The area’s only high school, Pearl-Cohn — which takes half its name from an old black high school and half from an old white high school — is the same.

The work being done at Pearl-Cohn, led by both students and staff, is compelling, though it also reveals the trauma many of the school’s students have experienced. Sara Amos is a full-time social worker at the school who saw her position nearly eliminated during this year’s budget crisis. She devotes most of her time to counseling sessions with students struggling with depression, anxiety, anger issues and unresolved trauma.

“I would say about 80 percent of my caseload, something those students are dealing with is having lost someone to gun violence at some point in their lives,” Amos says.

Rasheedat Fetuga, founder of Gideon’s Army — a local nonprofit focused on policing and mass incarceration — is also a regular presence at the school, where she’s worked with students and the school to reduce suspensions and expulsions and to lead students in restorative practices. Recently, after 70 students signed up to be part of a leadership team that will work with the city on reducing youth violence, Pearl-Cohn’s principal, Dr. Sonya Stewart, gave Fetuga a full day with the students for training. They explored root causes and solutions to youth violence. Among the root causes students named, Fetuga says, were lack of resources, lack of jobs and the emotional toll of displacement and upheaval.

“There’s the physical act of being displaced, but then there’s also the emotional stress of watching your community be taken over by people who don’t really care about you, how it affects you or how it will affect your community in the long run,” says Fetuga. “They don’t care about the history, and especially in North Nashville, with the rich history, it is devastating. And they feel like the city could have done something and didn’t.”

A girls’ grief group Fetuga leads recently met with the family of Akilah DaSilva, a 23-year-old victim of the April Waffle House shooting.

“Theirs was a mass shooting, but [with] the kids it is constant,” Fetuga says. “It’s constant shootings, it’s constant killings. And they were able to speak to the DaSilva family and give them encouragement, even as children, because that’s something they’ve been going through for years.”

The ZIP code is also home to Buena Vista Elementary, which appeared on a list of the lowest-performing schools in the state earlier this year. To say the deck has been stacked against the school and its students is an understatement. Nearly all Buena Vista students are poor enough to meet the state’s requirements to receive school lunch for free, and 20 to 30 percent of its students are experiencing homelessness in one form or another. (It is the zoned school for the Nashville Rescue Mission women’s shelter.) The school also has high mobility rates, meaning many students either don’t start or don’t finish the academic year there.

Metro Councilmember Freddie O’Connell, who lives in the 37208 ZIP code and represents a portion of it on the council, started getting involved at the school when he moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago. He speaks with obvious frustration about the way Metro Nashville Public Schools officials have decreased funding to Buena Vista over the past several years. A “dollop” of extra funding through Metro’s Innovation Zone a few years back, he says, allowed the school to put apprentice teachers along with lead teachers in every classroom, among other things. But those resources have been drained after the Innovation Zone was effectively dismantled.

All the more upsetting to O’Connell is the brief appearance of a charter school a few blocks away that was around only long enough to harm Buena Vista. That school, Rocketship, opened at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, lowering Buena Vista’s projected enrollment and further draining the school of funding. But Rocketship ultimately shut down before the school year was even finished.

Amid all this, the young boys and girls of Buena Vista show up to school with burdens far too big for a backpack. The school has a Community Achieves program (as does Pearl-Cohn), which provides wraparound services — that is, assistance in all areas of a student’s life — to students and their families. Megan McGuire, the school’s site coordinator for the initiative, works to lighten the load students carry to school. Working with community partners — churches, neighborhood associations, food pantries and local businesses — she makes sure students have clothes and food, even to get them through the weekend. McGuire says incarceration inevitably comes up when her students play Monopoly in her room with their lunch buddies. The game’s “Go to Jail” square prompts students to mention family members who have been locked up.

With community partners, McGuire stresses the difference between empathy and sympathy. She urges volunteers to participate not because they feel sorry for her students, but rather because her students deserve to be invested in.

“I don’t want our kids and families defined by the external forces in their life — their socioeconomic status, the incarceration rates,” she says. “That is a reality for this neighborhood, but I think our goal at this school is that you can lay that down when you walk in the door.”

But it’s summertime now, and the hot sun is beating down on Nashville, Tenn., 37208. The students at Buena Vista and Pearl-Cohn, the youth of North Nashville, are walking out into the world with the weight of history on their backs and a stiff wind in their face.

37208

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