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VOL. 42 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 19, 2018

Can Tennessee history spur neighborhood renaissance?

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The new Tennessee State Museum has moved from a downtown basement to the corner of the Jefferson Street and Rosa L. Parks Boulevard.

-- Leigh Melton Singleton | The Ledger

Leaving the new Tennessee State Museum in the rearview mirror for a few minutes, I decide to dodge off Jefferson Street and try to catch up with the pedestrian who I later discover is a retired chief petty officer. “We ran the Navy,” he tells me, proudly.

I’d been at the museum to visit with folks getting first glimpses at the impressive new digs. Most of them were from out of town, exotic locales like the Carolinas, Belarus and Antioch.

But before I could tell the tale of the museum’s visitors, I wanted to find out how the neighbors feel about this new structure near Sulphur Dell and positioned at Rosa Parks and Jefferson, a literal welcome center, a gateway to millennial oasis Germantown and the culturally rich, historically black North Nashville.

I loop around a block or two and catch up with retired Chief Spencer Lockett, 64, just after he crosses Monroe and enters the Kroger parking lot. A warm and wise man, he’s glad to speak about the neighborhood museum.

“I’m a history buff,” he says, tucking his canvas grocery bag under his arm. “I like the museum there. It opens up more space – with Bicentennial Mall and the Farmers Market (adjoining the museum) – for the community to enjoy.”

Spencer, who worked in corrections after the Navy hitch that defines his life, moved to Nashville a few years ago. “I was in Memphis. Memphis is dead, and Nashville was booming,” he points out, waving his thumb down Monroe and adding, “I live down there, right by Tennessee State.”

He looks back toward Jefferson Street.

“A cultural thing like that (the museum) is what North Nashville needs,” he adds.

He shrugs when asked if this neighborhood museum will have any impact on the street-corner young people, a precious resource with promise too-often bled out due to dope, easy money and bullets.

“With this generation, they have to be motivated,” he says. “Money. What I see with kids now, they are into all in that digital stuff.”

We agree young people, of all colors and cultures and cuisines, could – in an ideal world -- be the ones most benefited by the museum.

During my visit inside the museum where docents, volunteers and security guards are in full force after the opening a day or so before, Gary Wade, 52, from Antioch, is the only Davidson County resident who will agree to talk about what he’s wide-eyeing among the artifacts and displays.

“I like everything so far,” he says. “I like history.” OK, so that’s not detailed analysis, but his smile shows it is heartfelt.

Course, I tour the joint, stopping to take in some of the video presentations and look at the artifacts, many of which came from the museum’s former home in the under-utilized dungeon beneath TPAC.

My eyes lock on the musket owned by Daniel Boone, who of course was a big man in the opening of the Cumberland Gap. “From the coonskin cap on the top of ol’ Dan to the heel of his rawhide shoe. The rippin’est, roarin’est, fighten’est man the frontier ever knew,” according to the now-ancient television series that revealed to Baby Boomers that Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett “had identical appearances and personalities.

Beyond ol’ Dan’s gun, there is an impressive collection and information about the state’s mistreated Indian tribes, an old Whig flag replica from Maury County and a sword carried by Lt. Colonel Hardy Murfree from North Carolina, a soldier in “I cannot tell a lie” George’s Revolutionary War Continental Army.

“Hey, that’s who Murfreesboro’s named for,” says a gentleman with a note of awe. I figure he’s from that city, but he declines to be interviewed.

Of course, there’s a trove of Civil War stuff and displays, my favorite being the Confederate frock coat of Major Hugh Gwyn. Apparently, he was a fine Rebel soldier, though it cost him. Display signage tells me he “sustained a gunshot wound to his hand at Chickamauga.” Obviously, while that hurt, he fared much better in the long-run than did the wartime president of the U.S.

Rebecca McGillivary, 25, and Tatyana Makushok, 34, are killing time in the museum while awaiting their evening flight back to the University of California-San Francisco, where they study cellular biology.

Rebecca is working on her doctorate, while Tatyana, from Belarus (“I want to stay in San Francisco,” she almost prays) is a jolly good post-doctoral fellow.

A Vanderbilt gathering at which they displayed the Stentor coeruleus cell is what brought them to Music City. They attempted to explain their work to me, but these days, nearing 67, the only cells I worry about are in my brain. (At least there aren’t as many to worry about these days.)

They sort of stumbled – or were Lyfted? – onto the new museum while looking for a lunch spot. Rebecca says, “our Lyft driver recommended (legendary Germantown establishment) Monell’s,” a few hundred feet on the other side of Jefferson from this fountain-fronted building where a friendly-enough security guard shakes off a reporter’s inquiries about the transition from the old basement space near the Capitol into this sure-to-be-iconic North Nashville gem.

“I can point you to an exhibit or talk about Tennessee history, but we’re not supposed to talk about anything else,” the guard explains. “Thanks for all of your help,” I say, exchanging handshakes for no apparent reason.

Back to the kind women, from the town where Tony Bennett left his heart, who explain that “some ladies at Monell’s told us we need to come here,” Tatyana says.

“It is cool to see all the artifacts,” Rebecca adds.

“I like to learn a lot about American history,” offers the Belaruski who wants to stay in the U.S.A. even as many of us daydream about migrating to Canada, Costa Rica or perhaps even Minsk.

Joe Fiore, 70, and his wife Agnes, 69, are focusing on the Scopes Trial exhibit as a part of a historically centered vacation in Nashville.

“We heard about the new museum and wanted to see it,” says retiree Joe, adding they are from Davidson, North Carolina.

“We’ve been here (in the museum) four hours so far,” adds this gentleman of historic endurance. “It’s very nice. I only wish there were more maps in the Civil War section.

“But there are a lot of original artifacts. It’s very interesting and we appreciate that there’s a lot of room for more artifacts,” says this insurance biz refugee.

Their agenda takes them to Civil War sites in Franklin and Murfreesboro (I put in a plug for some of Nashville’s unfortunately almost-anonymous sites, but he seems to tune me out as do many honky-tonk-blinded or deafened city fathers. But that’s another story for another day.) At least, as they drive back-and-forth to Franklin on I-65, they’ll get a chance to see that Hamburglar-like, cartoonish tribute to slave-trading Confederate hero and KKK icon Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“We saved one night for the Grand Ole Opry,” Joe notes, to this writer’s thumbs-up approval. Age and death have diminished their ranks, but there remain plenty of historic artifacts walking onstage out there in Donelson, as well.

After passing by a portrait of Alex (“Mr. Roots”) Haley, Loretta Lynn’s dress, a guitar autographed by Garth Brooks, a circa 1970 jacket from my late friend John R. Cash, a bit of info about Booker T. & the M.G.s and Dolly’s 1976 pantsuit, I encounter Rufus Thomas’ mink-tail key-ring (perhaps my favorite artifact, especially since I’d interviewed the “Do the Funky Chicken” nice-guy Memphis blues hero a few times).

Gentle couple Chris Gerber 28, from Austin, Texas, and Julia Gibson, 26, from Dallas, are visiting while in town to see her brother.

“The museum is very well thought-out,” notes Chris, who manages construction in Austin while his girlfriend produces commercials in the Big D.

The new Tennessee State Museum, just north of the Farmers’ Market on Rosa L. Parks Boulevard, features 137,000 square feet of administrative and gallery space.

-- Leigh Melton Singleton | The Ledger

The two planned to spend a bit more time at the museum before going for late-lunch/early dinner. “We ate at Bolton’s last night, but we are going to Prince’s today. Gotta eat more hot chicken.” Perhaps such butt-burning fare isn’t offered down among the yellow roses of Texas.

Greensboro, North Carolina, residents Beth Welsh, 38, and her husband Ed Welsh – who formerly toured with bluegrass heartthrob (to me at least) Alison Krauss before deciding he was better suited to staying home with Beth – have great praise for the museum which they decided to visit “as something to do on the way out of town,” he explains.

Music is what brought them to Nashville for the weekend. They caught both John Prine and Bruno Mars (not in the same concert, though that pairing could yield one helluva choreographed version of “Sam Stone” …. Can you imagine “there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes’’ set to hip thrusts and dancing girls?)

Ed says the most impressive thing about this museum is it’s free. “I think they should charge. There’s so much here.”

After driving back across Jefferson Street, this time to Germantown, I catch Larry Harrison, 71, as he walks down Seventh Avenue North.

He and his wife, Sherry, are long-time Germantown residents who now are in the process of moving to Destin.

A psychotherapist who works with the Wounded Warrior Project, he says his regular constitutionals through the neighborhood have allowed him to be “sidewalk superintendent” of the museum’s construction.

He says he’s visited the museum, quickly, and plans many more stops there during his neighborhood “walkabouts.”

With the Sounds ballfield, Bicentennial Mall and the Farmers’ Market all in the museum vicinity, Larry says the neighborhood keeps improving, offering more space and more things to do.

“I think it’s great,” he says of the museum and the other changes. Course that doesn’t stop his Destin destination desire.

“I’ve been passing it by while they built it and I’m so glad it’s up now,” adds Minnie Keeling, 73, a proud North Nashvillian who has parked on Seventh to pay a visit to an estate lawyer. “I think it’s wonderful.”

As for the new museum? “They do a good job,” offers Charles Coleman, 33, who I sit down next to on a short concrete, retaining wall along that same avenue. “I’m just out here catching some air (before walking back to his home on Buchanan Street).”

He says one thing he’s pleased about is that “they’ll be doing all kind of programs there” at the museum. “I’m going to go see it with my sister, who works out at Opry Mills.”

Over at Farmers’ Market, next to the museum, Janice Simons and her husband, Jerry, are having a pretty good day in terms of pumpkin sales.

The farmers from Elkton, Kentucky, make the hour drive down here from Simons Produce every day during their selling season.

She hasn’t gone to the museum yet, but reports that other vendors have, and they’ve offered positive reviews.

“It’s something enjoyable people can do,” she says, stopping briefly to tend to a customer seeking the perfect future jack-o’-lantern.

“People can come visit the museum, the Bicentennial Mall and the Farmers Market. It also helps us, because now there’s more parking.”

At Crossroads Campus on Monroe Street, Harriet Warner is tending to the needs of a tiny kitten which some vile scum covered with glue.

The development director at the non-profit – that helps improve the lives of abandoned animals and of area youth who are taught to aid in the healing, caring and adoption process – lives in Germantown, where her ancestors arrived in 1835. The museum is golden, according to her.

“The wonderful thing about the new museum is it is at the intersection between Bicentennial Mall and Jefferson Street, linking two important areas in the city, so it can act as a bridge from North Nashville to the State Capitol.”

Back in the Kroger parking lot, my new friend, the retired chief petty officer, says that bridge she talks of can work and make a big impact, but it’s going to take ingenuity, compassion and determination.

“The museum needs to involve a lot of the community and the schools,” says Spencer, the Chief, scanning our urban horizon. “Take those kids out of school and to the museum. Give them an assignment to do at the museum. That might work.”

Vowing to try to catch up again sometime – he wants to write a book about his Navy days, and I’d like to read it – the Chief turns to cross the parking lot of the Kroger that long ago was sort of a mercantile pioneer into North Nashville’s proud, pre-gentrification, almost completely African-American community.

Enough talk about the museum. “I’m going to go get some fruit and then I’m walking home. That’s my exercise every day.”

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