I’m still trying to wrap my head around the knowledge that Nashville’s neighborhoods were not thoroughly racially segregated until the 1970s. You’ll remember that we talked about this last month when we were looking at where all people on racist demagogue John Kasper’s mailing list lived.
I’ve been trying to understand why this surprises me. I think part of it is that I brought my experience of growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s and 1990s to the discussion, and in the places I grew up, there was solid, firm racial segregation. I can count the number of Black people I knew as a child who weren’t my dad’s pastor friends or their kids on one hand and still have two fingers left over. Black and white people did not live together.
So when white people in Nashville told me which neighborhoods were Black and which neighborhoods were white, when I heard stories about how white people didn’t really know about hot chicken (for instance) because white people didn’t really go into Black neighborhoods, it was easy enough for me to just accept that this was some unfortunate relic of a deeply segregated past.
I made assumptions based on my own experience and didn’t understand that, when I heard people talking about their neighbors of other races, I was not hearing about anomalies, but just how the city had been set up. But here's what I find really fascinating about this: Everyone who has lived in Nashville their whole lives and is in their 60s or older knows this. And at least anecdotally, it seems like no one younger does.
We have other instances of this kind of knowledge break, where the train of “what happened” skips the track from truth to what people wish was the truth. The biggest instance of this is probably the way that white Southerners were able to move away from the truth of the Civil War being fought over slavery to the falsehood of it being fought over states’ rights — even in the face of whole state constitutions and hundreds of letters and opinion pieces and fiery speeches where white Southerners said they were fighting over slavery. And we’ve seen it at a state level, with lawmakers insisting that 3,000 Black people attended Nathan Bedford Forrest’s funeral, when there simply was no building in Memphis at the time that could have held 3,000 people total.
But this happened within my lifetime. A truth about Nashville just got magically forgotten.
Here’s a thing I wonder about now — and I feel like a dumbass for asking, but I don’t know. White-owned Nashville businesses had rules about how Black people could conduct themselves within the business. For instance, you might have been able to buy clothes, but you couldn’t try them on beforehand; you could order food from a lunch counter, but you couldn’t eat at said lunch counter; you could ride a bus, but you had to sit in the back. And I had been assuming that some inverse was true. Not that white people couldn’t go into Black-owned businesses, but that they didn’t. But did white people in Nashville frequent Black-owned businesses? Like, if you were one of the white people living on Nassau and Delta in the 1940s and 1950s, did you have to go downtown to buy stuff or could you have gone to Jefferson? Or further back, could white people have ridden the Black-owned streetcars?
Is this an unexamined reason the interstates cut through Black business districts? To keep white people out of them?
I think a mistake I’ve been making was viewing racist stuff that happened in my lifetime as slightly less-bad iterations of the stuff that’s been going on since this country started. But what if we knew that Nashville was integrated at a neighborhood level right from the start? And if we really think about it, it was. Enslaved people lived with their enslavers. After slavery, white people needed to live close enough to Black people that they had easy access to domestic servants. White businesses in town needed Black people nearby as a cheap labor force.
It is true, absolutely true, that one of the most important political forces of the 20th century in the United States was to push to end legal segregation. But it also looks to be true that there was also just as strong, if not stronger in some ways, a campaign to segregate the South. Nashville certainly had majority-Black neighborhoods and majority-white neighborhoods in the 1950s. But ending certain legal segregations led to the rising of predominately Black neighborhoods and neighborhoods that were almost exclusively white.
In other words, when white Nashville felt most certain that white people were better than Black people, residential segregation was the least likely. As Black people gained economic and social power, white people began to impose residential segregation. Just looking at the map of where there were cross burnings in Nashville in the 1950s, you see that, even if they were in some cases about keeping white people from selling their houses to Black people or in other cases about trying to scare Black people out of their homes, it wasn’t in order to keep those neighborhoods white, since they weren’t all white. It had to have been about trying to make the neighborhood white.
But again, that was not so very long ago. People my parents' and grandparents' ages made these decisions. The children of the cross-burners are only middle-aged now. Some of the people who decided on the locations of the interstates are still alive. I guess it behooves them to keep quiet.
But it is an important thing to see — how recently a social order was imposed on us, and how quickly we convinced ourselves it had always been that way.