Civil War shaped Nashville's racial divide

Friday, October 23, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 43
By Hollie Deese

When it comes to talking about New Nashville and Old Nashville, historian David Ewing says many people new to the area might have a vision that only goes back 10 years even or 50 years. But the reality of it is Old Nashville goes back much longer than that.

“The foundation blocks of who we are today really started after the Civil War,” says Ewing, a ninth-generation Nashvillian and CEO of Nashville History On Tour. He previously served on the Metro Historical Commission, the Metro Historic Zoning Commission and as chairman of the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals. He is a recognized authority on Nashville history related to zoning, architecture, education, civil rights and neighborhoods, and consults with developers, hotels and investors who are interested in finding historical memorabilia about their purchase.

“One of the more interesting things about Nashville compared to other Southern cities, we were occupied by the Union army for three years of the Civil War. And so there was not huge damage to our city like Atlanta and Richmond, which were basically burned during the war,” Ewing says.

Not having to rebuild gave Nashville an edge when the war ended. Also, Ewing says the thousands and thousands of formerly enslaved people became an active part of the Nashville population. Many worked in factories, but some became doctors, lawyers, nurses and teachers.

“During that period of time, many African American businesses started, and three African American schools started during that time - Fisk University, Central Tennessee College and Roger Williams University – all started to educate former enslaved people,” Ewing says. “So we had more opportunities than a lot of cities for people to be educated and to do business. And since we were on the river, we had a lot of commerce coming into the city.”

In the 1950s, the federal government constructed the Interstate Highway System that had many positive impacts for national transportation but many negative effects on cities across the country, including Nashville.

“Interestingly enough, one of the benefits of Nashville right now is we have three interstate highways going through the city, but when the planners put the interstate through Nashville, they ended up putting it through Jefferson Street and basically destroying the African American business district there, which has not been the same ever since,” Ewing explains.

The interstate cut the neighborhood of Jefferson Street and North Nashville in half and made it hard for residents to access businesses by foot. What was immediately lost were staples of Jefferson Street, including the Ritz Theater and the Club Del Morocco, where Jimi Hendrix and others played. The long-term loss is still being felt today.

“The interstate ended up doing permanent and long-term harm to what was a very thriving part of downtown Nashville, and the people that put the interstate through that area could have easily had the interstate follow the river, kind of where Metro Center is today,” Ewing says. “It’s just a matter of pushing the loop a mile away to follow the Cumberland River. And they didn’t do that. Metro Center had not been developed yet, and it could have easily been put there without a disruption.”