My journey from the campuses of Meharry and Fisk in Nashville, TN took me on a path to find where the Black businesses were. I had no idea that “were” would truly be a key word. I had asked a sister at the front desk about Black businesses in the city and she started to list some food locations (which I never saw during the journey) and was speaking with a tone of caution. I had heard that before. I have traveled to all fifty states and I have always gone in search of my people. So, I took her caution to heart and I knew how to conduct myself accordingly. However, I found it ironic that she seemed to want to caution me about heading across town and said nothing about the folks that were lingering around as soon as we exited off the highway or folks who were literally in the heart of the tourist district that were dropping their used crack vials in the streets. These folks were not Black. So, I had to pray for this sister that had such a negative view of where her / our folks live while ignoring what was steps away from where she came to work each day. I prayed even harder for her when we went across to the historically Black side of town and never saw one person that appeared threatening or even high. In fact, I saw folks going to school and met some lovely young sisters operating a book store where I spent a good deal of my budget.
The first place that we ended up happened to be across from one of the local house museums and a BBQ spot on Jefferson Street. I spotted a historic marker and we dashed into the closest lot that would allow me to get out and get a photo. I was filled with joy when I saw that there was a marker there for a Black bank that once existed and helped with funding during the Civil Rights Movement. I didn’t have a long time to hold onto the joy since the lot we were in wasn’t for that bank since it didn’t appear to exist anymore like so many Black financial institutions.
After capturing images and trying the door to the sound museum across the street to only find that it was closed for renovations, we got back into the car and proceeded onward. I had my eyes and camera ready for every and any historic marker that we encountered, but I missed one because it was essentially under a highway and there was no safe way for me to get out to take the photo. As I quickly assessed what was in the distance, I saw what reminded me of being in New Orleans under the highway. There was artwork there. I know from having lived in cities that there was no way that we were going to go under a highway to capture images though. As we passed by, I realized that there were full fledge photos of numerous Black music stars and we wondered why would they put there under the bridge? I said, “No doubt someone called themselves providing a space for the story of this community to be told. However, how safe can it be under any bridge in America especially right about now?”
My mind didn’t fully leave that area even as we drove on down the street and appreciating the various artistic renderings from murals to graffiti that we saw along the way. I thought of Baldwin’s title “If Beale Street Could Talk” and I wondered if Jefferson Street could talk, what would it say or would it sing? I know when I feel music pulsating from a place even though there were no audible notes being played.
I felt great when I saw a purple awning in the distance and started to spot a marker next to it. Aaah, this is an Elks Lounge! We pulled into the parking lot and captured images of the building, mural, historic marker and what were no doubt Black businesses across the street. I laughed because the businesses all related to haircare-barbershop and the beauty salon. I would NOT be surprised if the owners are members of the Elks and all the members get done up there and then go home to come back for parties to beat the band! I smiled as we stood before what turned out to be the location of the historic “Club Baron.” Although this building has been the home of Elks Lodge #1102 since 1968 prior to that, it was one of Jefferson Streets many live music venues, Club Baron.
According to the fundraising site for this historic location: “From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, Club Baron booked the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, LittleRichard, Fats Domino, and Etta James. The mural on the side of the building commemorates a legendary 1963 guitar duel between one of Club Baron’s most notable artists, Jimi Hendrix, and local blues guitarist Johnny Jones. Jones is said to have won that showdown, partly because Hendrix was still developing his genre-shaking sound and partly because Jones had the more powerful amplifier.”
After cooling down in the air conditioning for a few minutes, I got out to capture an image of the entire mural on the side of the building. I enjoyed reading the signs for the parking spaces for each of the leaders of the Elks Lodge and I was ready to offer an apology to any of them if they pulled up and saw us in their space too. I respect the Elks and the Daughters of the Elk due to the fact that they were amongst the fraternal orders that gave me one of the nine scholarships that I won when I graduated high school. (No one has broken my record for scholarships in my county to this day.) It felt good to stand at a historic building and know that my folks owned this hall.
Many people are unaware of how significant fraternal orders used to be in Black communities. Many of our ancestors were the founders of such lodges and league halls on the Sea Islands of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. (See www.SaintHelenaGullahGeechee.com in particular for some background history of one that was formed on my home island.) During the Reconstruction Era, our people worked together to uplift the race and to sustain our families because that was the way to build and sustain our communities.
Many people may not realize that on November 17, 1898, the first meeting of the Black Elks was held in Cincinatti, Ohio. B. F. Howard and Pullman Porter Arthur J. Riggs, who had both been denied membership in the all-White Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE), created the organization. Riggs was able to obtain a copy of the BPOE ritual and applied for and was granted a copyright of the ritual for the Black Elks and thereafter formed the “Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.”
The initial Black fraternal orders were not simply social clubs. They provided Black people with economic and personal advancement. Due to this, the Black Elks became the largest Black fraternal organization in the world. The IBPOE’s stated purpose is “that the welfare and happiness of its members be promoted and enhanced, that nobleness of soul and goodness of heart be cultivated, that the principles of charity, justice, brotherly & sisterly love, and fidelity be inculcated, that its members and their families be assisted and protected, and that the spirit of patriotism be enlivened and exalted.”
I am praying that folks will tap into the historic benevolence that this order provided to others because in March of 2020 a tornado came through Nashville and caused structural damage to this historic building. Therefore, in 2021 the building was added to a list called the “Historic Nashville Nine.” The buildings on the list are those that folks want to see restored before they disappear and their history is lost. The Elks Lodge made the list because it is in desperate need of major structural improvements, including plumbing and electrical needs, as well as repair due to flooding damage. The building just got a new roof and a new awning but donations are still being requested and can be made on line at https://www.visitmusiccity.com/clubbarondonation or text #clubbaron to 615-551-5055..
Finding this building here and continuing down this strip until we arrived on the campus of Tennessee State made me wonder what I had already missed. I felt in my soul that this had once been another bustling Black area and reading the historic markers confirmed that. Yet, I still needed to find out more about the area. So, when we saw the Alkebulan Book Store, we had to support that before heading on to the next site on my list. Fortunately, I left with a literal box full of books and other items. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an elder in the store for me to dialogue with about growing up around the area. So, I did what I do and later researched Jefferson Street. What I found came as no surprise.
Apparently, what evolved into a “Black Wall Street” in Nashville started out as formerly enslaved people of African descent came into town via wagons and formed a contraband camp near Fort Gillem. That location became the campus of Fisk University.
As time went on, businesses and entertainment venues including “The Ritz Theater” (not to be confused with the one in the Gullah/Geechee Nation down in Jacksonville, FL) started building up on Jefferson Street. In memory of this and those that had contributed a great deal to the history and economic legacy of this part of Nashville, the Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership and Tennessee State University, among others, worked with the city and in 2012 they unveiled Gateway to Heritage Plaza at the I-40 underpass near the Jefferson Street exit. This was what we had driven passed that bore the images that we didn’t stop to photograph.
I was bothered by not feeling that that location was a safe spot to stop. I wondered why it would be there in the midst of what should be a bustling Black area. So, I couldn’t rest until I found out the answer to the question in my mind. I was accustomed to what Dr. Toure calls “symbolic victories” in the Black community and that is what I suspected that under the bridge art display was. Folks always want to take our property and leave us artistic renderings in the place of our deeds. That is a consistent part of the process of dressing up bad deeds that have been done against us.
A little research led me right to what I suspected. Not only is the current community threatened by issues of gentrification couched in revitalization, many are old enough to remember that this is not the first time that folks were “planning” to move them out. In 1967, a 40-member group of community leaders which was predominantly Black united under the name “The I-40 Steering Committee” to fight against this federal highway being built in the heart of their community. They argued that the interstate would isolate and/or destroy many black-owned businesses and also displace residents. The planning process had prevented community members from knowing the plans until it was too late. Therefore, 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. Interestingly enough, this highway now ensured the segregation of the city. It only takes a short drive to cross the interstate and literally be on “the other side of the tracks.”
Just as in the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which is a tourist destination in its own right, I could already tell where the investments were being made by the city and the state. They wanted the economics to be settled in the area away from Jefferson Street. The money flowed over there just like the beer and liquor did in the bars and the fingertips did over the keyboards.
As we got to that side of town, the traffic was in abundance and the parking was difficult as I expected it might be. We almost reached the rooftop of the massive parking lot before we located a space that we could pull into. We jumped out and got in our cardio as we raced down to the new National Museum of African American Music in order to be there on time.
Once we got in the building, my heart didn’t slow all the way down. Instead, it started beating in harmony to the music that was playing in the lobby. I was so happy to be in the space. This is my kinda place!
We were greeted by some very professional young sisters and brothers and immediately became members to support the work that was going on to tell the stories of our musical legacy. We loved the perk of being able to download playlists from various kiosks. I was looking forward to seeing what I could get my hands on that I didn’t already have amongst my tens of thousands of songs.
While taking my info, they discovered that we were from the Gullah/Geechee Nation and all bets for me playing tourist were off! We had wonderful discussions about what the culture is and what brought me to the museum. I left my card so that they could go to www.GullahGeecheeNation.com and learn more.
We noticed that a brother was standing like a butler holding the door open to the theater and we figured we better cut the convo short and get on our way. He said, “I will wait on you. Take your time.” He didn’t know that I wanted to rush right in so that I could get to the music!
When we walked into the theater, the film was already under way. I was barely in my seat when I saw the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida on the screen. I knew in that moment that this being a destination that I was determined to get to was not for naught. I felt immersed in the bush arbor once again. I refrained from clapping as much as I wanted to. I wanted to break out into a shout in this moment that was filled with peace. Whenever I am in the midst of my people’s story, I am at peace and add music and I am heading to nirvana.
As the short documentary ended, I already expected a door to open to the right for us to exit through. I have been to enough museums to know the routine. Sure enough, the announcement was made and we rose from our seats to exit to the right.
Before I got out the door, I could see ahead of me words that took me from the clearing of the bush arbor right to the Sea Island shore-wade in the water.
Believe me, I wanted to start singing, but I wasn’t sure how the museum folks would take to that. I also noticed that GOD had perfectly orchestrated this moment and allowed me to have this gallery space to myself without others going the route that I was led to take. I was giving thanks for this so that I could continue in this peace and simply drift into all that I love-more Black history and more music.
I laid my eyes on a Mahalia Jackson quote that seemed to speak out loud for me as I struggled not to start singing The Spirituals. I took a photo of the quote and was ready to stand next to it so that I could have a photo of myself with it when I felt the energy that I was no longer going to just have this time to myself to enjoy the space and the music. I paused and slowly turned to see a sister approaching. Inside I was saying, “Hopefully, she is just going to greet us as part of the customer courtesy” and the Spirit was telling me that she was coming straight to me. Well, The Spirit is always right! She came to find me because she was told that the Queen of the Gullah/Geechee Nation was in the building. I was right to because she sure did come to greet me. We had a wonderful conversation and she showed me one of her favorite quotes in then next gallery and then we proceeded to turn around so that I could go back and get the photo that I was about to take when she found me.
As I turned around, I looked through a doorway to the section that many of the other visitors had gone into when I had gone the way GOD led me to go. I looked right at myself on the wall! I said, “That’s me!” We all started walking through the doorway to see how in the world I got on the wall of this museum and as we got a clear view, the exhibit scrolled to the next era of time. The sister was as surprised as I was to find out that I was part of this place that didn’t even know existed until I decided to take a road trip that I felt compelled to take. I stood there waiting to see myself again and I knew why I truly wanted to get to this place if I didn’t get to see anything else. After a few minutes, the confirmation was clear, I was looking at myself standing in front of my favorite praise house and I wondered just how many museums I was going to end up in. The King-Tisdell Cottage in Savannah, GA was the first one to honor me in this manner (at least that I got to see. Others told me that folks had me on the Meeting House wall in Massachusetts decades ago.). Just recently, the National Museum of African American History & Culture placed me in their 2023 calendar and I thought that was going to be my museum highlight for this year. However, this one truly stunned and touched me all at the same time.
I guess if I truly think about it, the entire journey to discover the Black history of Nashville, stunned and touched me at the same time. I was filled with more and more joy as I saw my people and talked to and supported them at each vendor booth or business that we found. Joy flowed all the more as I sang and danced in the museum. As I walked through the space enjoying the interactivity of it all, I saw posters bearing the name of my cousin who is a hip hop icon that I had just spoken to the day before. I immediately texted him images and he responded, “WOW!” I smiled and kept walk-dancing through the space. I got to even dance in the street as the music poured out from the various locations once we emerged out of the museum as they locked the door behind us. We treated the museum like a good night club and shut the place down!
At the end of not only an amazing day, but a powerful experience, I headed to the water once again. I stood there looking out giving thanks that GOD had sent this Gullah/Geechee up to Tennessee. Disya a bless up journey!