This week’s cover story is an abridged excerpt from the just-published Nashville: An American Self-Portrait, edited by John Egerton and E. Thomas Wood. The volume is a follow-up to Nashville: The Faces of Two Centuries, published in 1979 in conjunction with the city’s bicentennial. Over the course of 12 essays and numerous sidebars, the new book takes a thoughtful, analytical, all-encompassing look at the city we live inthe forces that have shaped it and the challenges it faces in the 21st century. A wide and varied pool of Nashville writersincluding a handful of Scene reporterscontributed to Nashville: An American Self-Portrait. We’ve excerpted Reginald Stuart’s probing look at race relations in Nashville and how they’ve been altered by the city’s influx of immigrants in the last decade. A native Nashvillian, Stuart is a former Tennessean and New York Times reporter who now works for the Knight-Ridder chain.
To celebrate the book’s publication, the downtown public library is hosting a “Meet the Authors” fundraiser for the Nashville Public Library Foundation, 6:30 to 10 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 6. Davis-Kidd Booksellers will be making copies of the book available for sale at the event. For more information, call 880-2613, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a youngster growing up in a public housing project on the south side of Nashville in the early 1970s, Charles Davis learned early what limits his home city placed upon him. “I saw Nashville as the world,” he recalled. “I didn’t experience much racism firsthand, but I knew it was there. As a young black boy, I knew what was expected of me.” Not much: no achievement, no competition, no trouble. Davis was not one to follow the beaten path. Undeterred by the game of low expectations, by all the seen and unseen hurdles thrown into his path, he made it to McGavock High School, largely on the strength of his potential as an athlete. By graduation time, he was a smoking-hot basketball talent, a sought-after star.
The hurdles were still there. “I was told I couldn’t go to Vanderbilt,” he recalled. “When I asked why, they said, ‘Blacks just don’t go there.’ ” True, Perry Wallace had broken the athletics segregation barrier at Vandy, and in the Southeastern Conference, a decade earlier. Still, it wasn’t routine for a black person to go to Vandy. The challenge appealed to Davis, and he pursued it.
Not only did he attend Vanderbilt; he became one of its all-time best basketball players, graduated with his class in 1981, and went directly into a 12-year professional career in the National Basketball Association. From an unpromising start on a crumbling asphalt court in the projects, he soared to stardom with the Washington Bullets, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Chicago Bulls. He won fame and fortune, and nourished both with prudence and sound judgment.
When his professional career ended in 1994, Davis returned to his roots, keeping a promise he had made to himself years earlier. He served as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt for a couple of years. Then he moved on to start his own business, CDC Incorporated, a company that distributes a variety of products, from pasta and bottled water to surgical supplies and even doors. No beer, wine, liquor, drugs, or guns.
In every way imaginable, Charles Davis has made a spectacular success of his lifeand at 42, he’s just reaching his prime. Not bad for a lanky youngster from the J.C. Napier Homes who, but for his own belief in himself, the unyielding love of his mother, and timely advice from others along the way, might just as easily have wound up behind bars at the state prison in West Nashville.
Davis is ever mindful of that. It is one of the main reasons he decided to return to Nashville. Only someone who has lived the life could possibly know how slim the margin is between making it and missing it in the projects. It’s as thin as a cigarette paper, as fragile as a whiskey bottle, as hazardous as a hypodermic needle. Maybe lots of kids could make it safely past the hazards, Davis reasoned, if they just had a little more help and encouragementso he came home to give back to his community some of what he had taken with him and some of what he had gained along the way.
After his rookie year as a professional basketball player, Davis had established a small foundation in his name for the purpose of helping youngsters in Nashville who face the same low expectations he did growing up here. This nonprofit venture has become his consuming interest, evolving into a major Nashville philanthropy that touches the lives of about 3,500 children a year in 13 city schools. They get mentoring, tutoring from area college students, introductory training for future careersand most importantly, a genuine sense of possibility, of hope. “I really wanted to come back and focus, concentrate, on making a difference in people’s lives,” Davis said. “I want to be known not as an athlete but as a humanitarian. We’re not trying to fix anybodyI just don’t want to see any more kids fall through the cracks.”
In the spirit of a small but significant number of black and poor Nashvillians before him, Charles Davis has overcome poverty and prejudice to establish himself as a successful citizen committed to making a difference with his time and money. He is deeply invested in helping to reshape his hometown as a better place for all its residents, regardless of their standing in life. Davis has seen Nashville grow and mature since the 1960s. Progress has been made. Still, it’s easy for him to be reminded of how slowly white Nashville has matured in its perception of the black one-fourth of the population. He related this experience to make the point:
“Just yesterday, at the Mercedes Benz dealership, as I was dropping my car off to be serviced, a [white] lady pulled in catercorner to me. She looked over and said, ‘When you’re done, could you park my car?’ I was polite. I said, ‘Pardon me, but you should not assume that every black person you see here works here.’ ” Davis said the lady looked embarrassed and quickly tried to pass the encounter off as if she were joking. The damage had been done.
Lingering particles of subtle racism still float like radioactive dust in the atmosphere of contemporary Nashville. They continue to affect and infect those of us, black and white, whose ties to the city and to the South run deep. Now, we are beginning to see newcomers from other regions and other races falter from exposure to the same low-grade poison.
The atmosphere is somewhat deceiving. This is not a time of pervasive tension and hostility in Nashville. No alarm bells are ringing, no violent confrontations are imminent, no screams of rage disturb the surface harmony. Instead, a vague disquiet hovers beneath the surface of our thoughts, causing even the most well-meaning of longtime residents to question our collective abilityand our willto move the city up a notch, to transform it into an equitable, vibrant, multiethnic, and productive 21st-century community.
At the starting gate for this journey, questions beg answers: Are we preparedmentally, socially, politically, educationally, economicallyto transform ourselves into a community of interdependent citizens, or even a reasonably progressive and productive small city attuned to its cross-cultural strengths, like Seattle or Portland? Can Nashville overcome its racial and cultural bonds and rifts? Can it move on to embrace, or at least respectfully tolerate, an avalanche of new languages, cultures, life-styles, folkways, and mores? Or are we so saddled with the baggage of the past that we will fail to seize the opportunities still open to us, disintegrating instead into another Sarajevo, a city doomed to decades of ethnic and religious strife and preyed upon by one faction of political and economic interests after another?
The questions are not ours alone. Every American community faces them. Nashville’s real test at this point in its history is to adjust its thinking from negative to positiveto see its problems as opportunities. The future prospect for Nashville’s evolution into a multiethnic city of ever new possibilities now takes on complex dimensions that could hardly have been imagined during most of the last century, when issues of race were sharply etched in black and white.
Signs abound that Nashville is finally becoming what our airport promoters were trying to persuade people we were years ago: a cosmopolitan, international city, not a one-note country town. Drive along Murfreesboro or Nolensville roads and you’ll see scores of storefronts with names few Nashvillians can pronounce. Many of the city’s recent settlers are living between these two major thoroughfares, or along Gallatin Road. The more prosperous have already moved on to affluent suburban communities.
By day and by night, these new Nashvillians are everywhere to be seen, as laborers, clerks, students, teachers, artisans, white-collar professionals, shopkeepers, and restaurant operators. Not so long ago, the Mexican and Asian eateries in greater Nashville could be counted on the fingers of one hand. They were pale imitations of authentic establishments, yet they were the closest we could get to Hispanic and Asian food and culture. Now, the national cuisines of two or three dozen countries can be found faithfully rendered in the city, along with the native tongues of perhaps a hundred nationalities.
Pass almost any major construction site, and you’ll see Mexican laborers doing the work that blacks and poor whites once fought over and eventually shared. Park downtown, and you’ll find Somalian men managing most of the parking lots. Visit a beauty supply store, such as Kim’s on Jefferson Street, and you’ll meet Korean owners. Shop at Kroger, and you’ll be asked “paper or plastic?” in countless accents. Dine at the Belle Meade Buffet on Harding Road, and you’ll find “new” people dispensing Southern cooking and comfortthe same familiar black men carrying trays, but mostly Asian cooks and servers, and a quietly efficient team of Asian managers in place of the whites who used to be in charge. (This hasn’t set well with many longtime patrons, some of whom have abandoned the buffet for other restaurants.)
At least three local Spanish-language radio stations are now on the dial, airing Latino music and lively debate on current issues within the booming Hispanic community. On local newsstands, you’ll see more than the morning Tennessean, the new daily The City Paper, the weekly Nashville Scene, and black weeklies such as the Tennessee Tribune and Nashville Pride. Today’s local news also comes via Actualidad Hispana, Tennessee Latino, La Campana, and Tennessee Chinese Times, among others.
Old Nashville is receiving its new neighbors (the estimated 1 in 7 born outside the U.S.) with reactions that range from hospitable to hostile. In general, the more affluent of Nashville’s white citizens tend to take a neutral or even positive view of the new wave of legal immigrants, seeing net gains from any infusion of working- and merchant-class residents. Even some undocumented workersbricklayers, say, or skilled laborersoften get a wink and a nod from contractors ready to hire able and willing hands at below-market wages. In contrast, the African American populationthe other part of Old Nashville, and the main losers when new competition enters the job marketstill has unfinished business to settle with the white majority. Many blacks see the new residents as something of a threat to the thin sliver of economic pie they have battled so long to secure.
Old Nashvillewhite and black native Nashvillereally isn’t prepared to offer any sort of unified response to the sudden flood of newcomers. “We” enjoy “their” food, but few of us understand their languagesSpanish, Thai, Korean, Kurdish, Chinese, Sudanese, and many others. Even fewer of us can begin to fathom their histories, cultures, life-styles, and mannerisms. All too predictably, human nature being what it is, we whites and blacks tend to generalize about the new residents, making sweeping assertions, just as we have painted each other with broad strokes for nearly two centuries.
For black Nashvillians, the trauma goes deeper. As the new century turns, we seem caught in a post-segregation-era depression that causes extreme dysfunction in an alarmingly high number of households. The signs are painfully apparent: the toxic spread of illegal drugs; domestic violence; violence against, and by, juveniles; unmarried teenagers producing children out of wedlock for others to raise; a lost sense of community and work ethic, two vital strengths in the struggle against segregation.
Having no unified plans of its own, black Nashville finds it all too easy to resent or ridicule the solidarity and the idealistic dreams of new residents. This dismissive attitude is like a mask covering a core fear: “They” are taking “our” jobs, “our” securityour stakewithout so much as a nod of acknowledgement that the opportunities they enjoy were made possible by the African American minority long before the newcomers arrived. White Nashville, meanwhile, reacts as if it has too little at stake and no desire for a ’60s-style confrontation in any case.
It’s probably just as hard for most new Nashvillians to figure us out. Our Southern speech makes it difficult for them to understand our English. Language barriers, immigration status, cultural histories, and stereotypes make it even harder for most new residents to build coalitions outside their own communitiesto pick up the vernacular and subtleties of Nashville talk, Nashville life. Meanwhile, the Hispanics, Asians, and others aren’t exactly inviting us to come into theirs.
Conversation and dialogue, so important a part of daily life in Nashville and the South, are hindered by so many real or imagined barriers between New and Old Nashvillians. So we fret separately, too caught up in our own concerns to worry much about the consequences of a new style of segregation.
Contemporary Nashville is a significantly different place now than ever beforethan even 10 years ago. It is more urban, more densely populated, more diverse, more international, much richer (and at the same time more at risk financially), better educated, and growing faster in the lower- and upper-age brackets than in the middle.
From the 2000 census, we learn that Metro Nashville-Davidson County’s whites (67 percent) and blacks (26 percent) account for almost 95 percent of the population of 570,000. But in census lingo, race is an inexact and elusive term. Most Hispanics, for example, are counted as whites; so are most Canadians, Brazilians, western Europeans; so too are Iraqis, Iranians, Saudis, Palestinians, Israelis, Greeks, Turks, and Kurds. (Nashville reportedly has the second-largest Kurdish population in the U.S., totaling close to 10,000.) By most accounts, there are at least 15,000 Asians living in the Nashville areaChinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis, southeast Asians. And finally, the classification “black” includes not only Americans of African descent but immigrants from Africa, of whom there are said to be 10,000 here, perhaps more.
The key identifier is not color, as it was when the entire local population was native-born and racial discrimination was embedded in the law; the biggest change in Nashville is that, in a few short years, we have ceased to be an insular aggregation of natives, white and black. As the new century opens, upwards of 85,000 Nashvillians15 percent of uswere born in another country, another culture, another mother tongue. Collectively, they are the new minority, the New Nashville. The rest of us, the majority, are Old Nashvillewhites and blacks and a handful of Native Americans thrown together by history and given the awesome responsibility of fashioning a workable society that serves us all.
The questions persist: Are we ready for this? Can we make a go of it? Have we learned anything from our historyor enough, at least, to keep us from repeating it?
The early signs are not promising. Consider this brief deposition of “street sociology”: Hispanics far outnumber Asians among the new population groups in Nashville (by at least 4 to 1, some say), yet Asians are much more visible in a broader range of roles at the upper end of the economic scalethey’re physicians, scientists, and educators at area hospitals and universities, business executives at manufacturing facilities, prosperous merchants, computer wizards. They have a visibility out of all proportion to their numbers. At the blue-collar end of the spectrum, meanwhile, the sheer number of Hispanic laborers and craftsmen would lead you to believe that without them, no new buildings or roads or major landscaping could possibly be finished.
These two distinct variations on the visibility theme generate a single familiar refrain among Old Nashville’s populace: “Those Asians and Hispanics are stealing our jobs and taking over the city!” It is a worn-out lament heard all too often today, as it was in reference to blacks during the past 50 years, when racial segregation was being dismantled brick by brick. Each time black Nashvillians achieved a breakthroughthe first policemen and firefighters, the first city bus drivers, the first car salesmena chorus of white Nashvillians could be heard sighing that disaster was near, that “something has got to be done to stop them.” And sighing rather than shooting was often noted by the powerful elite as reassuring proof that the city had a good heart, and it would come around to change gradually, in its own sweet time.
This time around, the sighs may be loudest in black Nashville. We have come so farand yet, it seems, we have learned so little. It is not the Asians and Hispanics who threaten our advancement; it is Old Nashville.
James Sun, a native of China, came to the United States in 1989 and to Nashville in 1992. He and Kim, his Korean wife of 10 years, fit the stereotype of hardworking, success-minded Asians. Within three years they had opened a produce business at the Farmers Market, and now they have added a grocery store on Nolensville Road. Both enterprises are thriving.
“When I quit my clothing import-export business in Florida, I traveled all around the East for two months looking for a place that was quiet and safe and had business potential,” Sun recalled in an interview one April afternoon. He understands English well, and speaks it well enough to get his thoughts across. “A friend who works for NationsBank suggested I try Nashville. ‘It has nice weather. The people are nice.’ We came. We stayed.”
He decided to go into the food business, but it was a struggle finding local brokers and distributors who would import the Chinese food items he wanted to sell at his market, so he worked with a broker in Georgia. Things eventually got better. Skeptical merchants had warned him that his business, called Oriental Farmers Market, probably wouldn’t last more than a few months. Too different, they said. To prove them wrong, Sun worked longer hours and pushed harder. Five years later, Oriental Farmers Market was a vibrant complement to the array of food vendors who represent a rainbow of ethnic and racial groups from around the world.
Next, Sun and his wife rented a vacant store on Nolensville Road, poured their savings into it, and opened an ethnic grocery, K&S International. The Suns’ new store offers a wide variety of food items from around the world. Patrons of all colors come in a steady stream. Since the store opened, Sun said, he has not taken one day off from work.
He’s not complaining. On the contrary, like many Asian merchants here, Sun is proud of his total commitment to success. He sees it as a critical part of his contribution to the community: “For myself, I try to do my best. For [Old Nashville] to see how hard Asian people try and how we succeed, then the people believe we also support the city. When I see success, I’m happy.”
Despite his personal success, Sun says candidly that he encounters more than a few Americans who “don’t like Oriental people,” who “look at me as an Asian face.” He has also had a hard time in his Franklin neighborhood, an upscale area where houses generally go for a quarter-million and up. He said one neighbor in particular seizes any occasion to criticize something about the Suns. She even made snide (if not racist) comments about his Lincoln Continental.
“I moved there because of the neighborhood, and good schools,” said Sun, whose 16-year-old stepson goes to public school in Franklin. “But some people resent us. They don’t think we should live in this community.” Another Asian family moved out, he said; a black family moved in. Things change slowly. Sun remains hopeful his hostile neighbors will change, if only because “they will appreciate how hard we work.”
Ironically, Sun is less optimistic about relations among Nashville’s Asian communities, and the Asian population’s relations with the rest of the city. “They’re all divided,” he said of the various nationalities represented here (Laotian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Cambodian, Thai, and others). “Not much contact. Each group has its own churches, its own parties. I think language is the problem.” There is no common language among Asians, as there is for all Hispanics, and for most blacks and whites.
Besides language barriers, the political and social history of Asia is full of conflicts that still divide people. Even their propensity for hard work gets in the way of solidarity. “Everybody is busy,” said Sun. “Not much time to get together. Sometimes I sleep just three or four hours. Even Christmas Day, I worked,” he said with a mixture of embarrassment and pride.
Joong Seo, who moved to Chicago from Korea with his parents in 1982 at age 12, offered additional insight. “Most immigrants coming here are highly educated,” Seo said. “So other than language barriers, they have the necessary skills to succeed. This is still the land of opportunity for most immigrants. Even the less-educated come here believing they will succeed.”
Seo earned a degree in economics at DePaul University, worked at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and became a certified public accountant before moving to Nashville in 1995. The 30-year-old businessman, who grew up in a family of dry-cleaning merchants, owns Town and Country Cleaners on Hillsboro Road in Green Hills. His wife, Hyun Mi, is from Nashville. They met in college.
Seo drew on his Chicago experience to help his visitor sort through what may be happening in Nashville. “Hispanics have a single language,” he explained, “and they can organize under a term like Hispanic or Latino. But Asians? Each country has a different language. Asians are also very nationalistic. Filipinos don’t like Japanese, and so on. Other people look at us and say we’re all Asians, all immigrants, but there is very little cohesion.”
A Korean merchants association has tried to organize businessmen, Seo noted, but only 10 or 15 people show up for meetings. In his view, the closest Koreans can get to bonding is in Christian churches. “The community can’t function without the church,” Seo said. “There are about 15 churches here and about 70 percent of all Koreans attend one.”
Just as black and white Nashvillians have had their own perpetual disagreements, Seo says there are many such disputes among the Asian people. It is very hard, for example, for many Koreans to even think of bonding with the Japanese. Too much historical baggage, just like many blacks and whites who still clash over slavery and the Confederacy. It was the Japanese who occupied Korea during World War II and forced many young Korean women into camps to provide sex for Japanese soldiers. “The animosity and mistrust rest in my grandfather’s generation,” said Seo. “He would never trust a Japanese person. If my children had Japanese friends and they wanted to marry, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. But not many would unite and say, ‘Let’s do something as Asian people.’ ”
What about Asians and Old Nashvillians?
“The white community embraces Asians a lot better than the black community,” Seo said, “probably because of stereotypes. White people say, ‘They [Asians] won’t beat us up, rape us. They are smart and work harder.’ Black people think Asians are taking their money and don’t care about us. Koreans say, ‘Black people just want to rob and kill us.’ It’s very tough to get beyond that. But the only way to make things better is through education. It is very important. The black community has to get out of poverty and empower themselves. Kids 12 and 13 years old should be in school. Immigrants come here and say, ‘Hey, they’re not our equals because all they do is drink and shoot. They are not our friends, not our equals.’ It is sad that so many people come here with such fixed notions.”
Is Nashville ready to become a culturally diverse community?
“Most people think it’s probably more ready than it really is,” said Seo. “As my business expands, I meet more city leaders. I visited the City Club once. My brother and I were the only minorities there, except the servers. At a Pavarotti concert, there were about 10 minorities. Who runs this city?”
By the year 2000, Martha Salazar, a native of Colombia, had been in Nashville only four years. Already, though, she was operating a very busy storefront called Hispanic Community on Nolensville Road. From this perch, Salazar, who came to the United States in the mid-1970s, provides translation services, immigration forms, tax assistance, and publishes the magazine Tennessee Latino. In the process, she sees and hears what’s happening among Latinos in Nashville.
By Salazar’s estimate, the Hispanic population here numbers far more than the 26,000 counted by the censusperhaps three times that many, or more. Her total, she said, reflects the huge number of “economic refugees,” most of whom live here illegally.
“The biggest part of the population welcomes Hispanics, but not all,” said Salazar. “Some police treat them like animals because they don’t speak the language. Landlords don’t want to rent to them; they bring a lot of excuses, or they have these awful places to rent because the tenants won’t complain. People back away in restaurants when Mexicans come in for lunch. At the driver’s license bureau, a black clerk looked perturbed every time I brought Mexican men in to get their licenses.”
The one area where there are relatively few problems is employment. “Hispanics are hard workers,” Salazar said. “The illegals are taking jobs that nobody else wants”as construction hands, landscapers, hospital orderlies, day labor. Most natives can’t begin to make distinctions among Hispanics based on nationality, social class, or legal status, and to fall back on the lame “they all look alike” response muddies the water of community acceptance even more.
Nashville’s news media don’t help matters much, Salazar complained: “The coverage is very poor. They reinforce false stereotypes of Hispanics as Democrats who are big on welfare, don’t have a work ethic, and don’t pay taxes.” Salazar takes strong offense at these assumptions, but acknowledges there is little the Hispanics can do because of the language barrier.
The surge in the immigrant population has fueled an entire new economy aimed at Hispanics, most of whom are Catholic and speak little if any English. Catholic and Methodist churches are offering services in Spanish. Local banks are trying to work with immigrants. Some employers, like Gaylord Entertainment, have helped newcomers find housing and transportation to and from work. All this against a national backdrop of a new president, former Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is promoting even easier access across the border for Mexicans, in hopes of stimulating greater economic growth for the United States.
“I do have a lot of hope because people are listening and trying to do something to accommodate everyone,” said Salazar. Her three sons, all of whom have spent some time at Overton High School, like living in Nashville: “They are very open-minded. They go out with anybody. They are friends with black Americans, whites, Asians. That process is what we need to see more of.” Salazar had done her own share of trying to reach out. She got involved in Leadership Middle Tennessee and made friends with the publisher of one of the city’s black newspapers. That has helped her grasp the feelings of whites and blacks in Nashville toward Latinos moving here in large numbers. It has helped her educate them as well, and defuse some misguided notions.
Meanwhile, the evolving Hispanic community is sorting through its own growth pains. At one point, Hispanic business leaders got on the radio to air their dispute over which Hispanic chamber of commerce was the “real” one. “This division is hurting us,” Salazar said, “because people in the community are asking, ‘Who are the good guys?’ We don’t know.”
If life in the post-segregation era had attained even a fraction of what was envisioned by young blacks during the sit-ins, stand-ins, boycotts, and marches of the 1960s, Nashville would indeed be a different city today. Blacks and whites who were seniors in Nashville high schools then would be law partners now, or doctors in joint practice, or in business together all over town. Hardly anything like that happened. We would all be living in more integrated neighborhoods, redefining community while retaining heritage and values. Never happened. Our kids would be walking to integrated neighborhood elementary schools, never having needed a court order to define equality or enforce the principle of equal protection of the lawbut that didn’t happen either.
Downtown Nashville might have been spared a couple of decades of looking like an abandoned gold-mining town, since white flight would not have been the driving social force of the 1970s and ’80s, and we wouldn’t have had to reinvent the vision of a vibrant central business district. Jobs and job training would have been more accessible to all. The Centennial Park swimming pool would still be a pool, not a botanical garden created to avoid integrating the pool.
Reality didn’t live up to those dreams. Today, Nashville may be a better place to live than it used to bebut in many respects we are further apart than most well-meaning folks would have thought we’d be by now. Somehow the dream has faltered.
Much of white Nashville sees it a different way: “We surrendered a lot in the past century to give black Nashvillians access to all public schools and higher education, public accommodations, job opportunities, and political power. What more do they want?”
The answers are short and long, simple and complex, inspired and impossible. Such as: Rip up Interstate 40 and restore the thriving community that once grew there in the heart of North Nashville. (It might have died of integration anyway, but it would have been a much slower and less painful death.) Make good on still unfulfilled promises, over the past century, to invest generously in Fisk University and Meharry Medical College, two of Nashville’s best-known institutions of higher learning. Get more color into the pale complexion of professional music in the city, from the recording studios to the management offices to the symphony orchestra. Let Tennessee State University develop into the premier state university in Middle Tennessee. Make the criminal justice system fundamentally fair to all, from the squad car to the courtroom to the jail cells.
Old baggage. Old baggage that white Nashville kept out of sight as it raced to build professional football stadiums and monuments to music and art. Old baggage that black Nashvillians with long memories will never forget.
There is another painful reason why the dream has foundered. It’s true that whites have failed blacks, but blacks have also failed themselves. “My generation as a wholethe ’60s and ’70shas made the worst generation of parents in history,” said T.B. Boyd III, leader of the fourth generation of Boyds involved in the printing and publishing industry here. “We, black folks in general, lost that level of respect for our elders that we had at one time. The children of today are not being indoctrinated with that respect. I don’t think we are prepared at all for what is ahead,” he said.
Boyd grew up in North Nashville, attended public schools here, and now runs the family’s businesses. At 53, he is president and chief executive officer of Boyd Publishing, producer of hundreds of thousands of pieces of religious literature each year; chairman of Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Company, the oldest continuously operating black bank in America; and vice chairman of the board of Meharry Medical College, a school that at one point in the last century had educated nearly half the black physicians and dentists practicing in America. He is in a position to know whereof he speaks. Reviewing the prospects for black Nashville, Boyd expressed deep concern:
“So far, I see too much apathy and too many of our young people majoring in minors, more interested in the hip-hop scene than real-life issues that are going to make or break them in adult life. I don’t see them showing enough seriousness about the competition they will face in this city. We don’t take advantage of the educational opportunities. We’ve got schools galore and opportunities to learn, but these schools are falling behind because the parents are so apathetic.”
As a businessman, Boyd sees the new influx of market-savvy Asians taking one black business location after another and making good where blacks failed. As an employer, he sees Hispanics anxious to fill any labor job available. Young black Nashvillians may be fiddling while Rome finishes burning down, he suggested. To make the point, he recalled one of his teachers at Washington Junior High Schoolthe band director, Don Q. Pullen. One day, Pullen was castigating his students, including trumpet player Boyd, for failing to apply themselves. He offered a comparison between them and their white counterparts: “The white boys are circling the earth and y’all are circling the alleys,” Boyd quoted Pullen. The analogy may have been a stretch, Boyd said, but they all got the message.
William A. “Bill” Collier Jr. grew up in a merchant family in North Nashville and went through the city’s public schools. His father owned a dry-cleaning business on Jefferson Street and a small restaurant known for its tasty hamburgers. Collier was both a beneficiary and a victim of the falling walls of employment discrimination. After college, he went into banking with the old First American National Bank. At the turn of the century, Collier was an officer at Union Planters bank downtown. The family businesses were gone, but Collier was in the mainstream. Like Boyd, he had mixed feelings about what he saw happening:
“When you look at some of the old business directories, there were 400 to 500 black businesses going from North to West to South Nashville. Now, when you look in the directories, you see 100 businesses and 400 individuals. The growing professional class of blacks is less tied to old neighborhoods and community reinvestment than earlier generations of black Nashvillians with money. There doesn’t appear to be any recognition of the importance of maintaining a viable black business community in Nashville. That’s one of the biggest losses to the entire community.”
Collier noted that there was little if any new housing construction or remodeling of existing houses in old neighborhoods, and no new investment in business ventures. As for those dreams that drove the battle to end racial segregation and employment discrimination and gave Collier’s generation hope for a whole different world, he said:
“It was the kind of freedom we were looking for, but in a lot of ways it became self-defeating. Black businesses have been shut. Entire neighborhoods in the city have been abandoned for ‘better’ ones in the suburbs. Schools are resegregating. Family dysfunction is as serious as neighborhood breakdown. Educators are having a hard time educating. We have frustrated teachers in a frustrating environment who can’t produce the results we got 30 years ago.”
Like T.B. Boyd, Bill Collier was looking for reinforcements, but not seeing many: “In the workplace, it’s assumed if you are Asian you are bright and hardworking. If you’re black, its assumed you are lazy, not smart, and aren’t going to work hard. When I walk the streets of downtown, it’s rare to run across any minorities in professional roles, wearing shirts and ties. I’m not very optimistic that things will change for the better anytime soon. If there’s a change in the wind, you can’t smell it, taste it, feel it, or see it. What I do see are ethnic pockets forming all around the city. They’re growing by leaps and bounds, like little townships, as black communities once did.”
The implication is that as the immigrants make economic gains, their voices in Nashville will become stronger than traditional black voices. Throughout black Nashville, among those who made it across the bridge from the segregated old Nashville to the desegregated new Nashville, and now face the new multicultural Nashville, the vibes of worry resound over and over.
“We have so many of our boys in the pen and on drugs, that when these Mexicans come in they get the jobs,” said the Rev. James Thomas, pastor for 30 years at Jefferson Street Baptist Church. Thomas, who left his home in Texas with $4 and lunch in a sack, came to Nashville in 1964 and emerged as one of the more outspoken Nashville clergy in the final decades of the last century. He has presided over more funerals than he can count for the children of church members who became involved in trafficking and use of illegal drugs. He faults adults for encouraging too much materialism among children and not enough of a work ethic and appreciation for education.
“We’ve got to do something to encourage our young folks,” he said emphatically. “The immigrants have the values blacks had two generations ago,” Thomas concluded. “They come here willing to sacrifice for the sake of their children. They don’t identify with us. They know ‘bubba’ and ‘brother,’ but they don’t know us. Before they get here, they’ve already been taught what to think of us.”
Despite the political clout black Nashvillians have gained in the past 30 years, many say the community has lost the will to flex its muscle. “There are more blacks than ever before in key political positions,” said Dwight Lewis, whose 30 years as a reporter and columnist for The Tennessean gave him a long lens on the city’s evolution. Recalling the time when Nashville had only a few black elected officials, Lewis rattled off part of the current list: two of the five Council members at large, nine of the 35 districted Council members, several members of the Legislature and the state judiciary.
But, instead of working together, these leaders “can’t get anything done except infighting over little things,” said Lewis. “Maybe they’re just not as hungry for change as they used to be.”
Nashville is my hometown. Every time I come back to it, I’m reminded again of how it was, how it’s changed, and how it hasn’t. This time, I thought of it in comparison to the scores of cities and towns I have visited as a journalist over the past 30 years. In all those places, no matter their size or shape or complexion, I’ve witnessed essentially the same drama: people experimenting with different ways to adapt to one another and to the world around them. All have fallen short of achieving the utopian dream of total harmony. Most have been unable to share their fears, shed their fears, and deal with other people as equals. Still, many have tried and gotten impressive results.
This town is no different. Nashville is at a crucial juncture in its history. We are not yet a truly diverse city, but we are about to become one, and the real question is, Can we do it right? The faces of Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East will be present in all walks of Nashville life. The prayers of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists will echo with those of Protestants and Catholics and Jews. Spanish will be a close second to English in our classrooms and marketplaces. We can see these challenges as opportunities to grow or as threats to the status quo. The choice is ours.
Too often, I have heard Old Nashville speaking as if it had to protect the status quo in order to grow, when in fact healthy growth will be impossible if the established and privileged sections of the city are too self-satisfied or too insecure to reform themselves. Too often, I have heard the New Nashville talking as if it had already decided how to relate to Old Nashville, black and white. Our new Asian residents might want to remember that many young Americans, including some Nashvilliansone being 19-year-old George Joyce, a child of the projects like Charles Davis, and a Pearl High School classmate of mine in 1964died in Vietnam fighting to expand the freedoms we all enjoy here today. The world is smaller than we realize.
Wethe Old and Newhave within us the ability to become a city that embraces racial and cultural diversity. Doing so would make us a deeper, more interesting, more productive society. It would take sacrifice, open-mindedness, and a willingness to look at the world through new lenses, but it can be done.
Nashville could be different. It could become a city second to none in this century. For all of its faults, this big patch in the middle of Tennessee is a community. It has drawn people of varied backgrounds to this region for centuries. We might not like one another every day, all the time, but we love Nashville. For that reason alone, we need to get it right in the 21st century.
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