NASHVILLE, TN — The Morris building and property is the ideal location for Nashville to construct its own Civil Rights Museum, something that has long been needed to highlight and celebrate a vital part of our city’s heritage.
Though many may not realize it, Nashville was one of the key locales in the Movement from its inception. While Greensboro was the site of the first sit-ins, Nashville students were soon active participants as well. The distinguished Rev. James Lawson, then a Vanderbilt Divinity student, sacrificed his early education to play a major role, and Fisk University’s Race Relations Institute served as a think tank where strategy sessions and major meetings were frequently held. Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr. as president of the Nashville NAACP, founder and president of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC), and a founding board member of the Nashville Urban League, was one of the city’s most influential black leader’s involved in the civil rights movement in Nashville.
Nashville was the most prominent key center of the Civil Rights Movement that doesn’t have its own museum saluting our history. Such cities as Atlanta, Greensboro, Birmingham, Memphis, Charleston and Jackson, Mississippi already have highly touted, popular Civil Rights Museums. Even other areas like Cincinnati, Detroit, and both New York City (the Schomburg) and Auburn, New York (Harriet Tubman’s home) have museums that acknowledge their municipalities’ Civil Rights Heritage, and of course there’s the National Black History and Culture Museum in Washington, D.C.
While Nashville’s bustling hierarchy of black music institutions was sacrificed due to urban renewal (Negro removal) and interstate construction, there remains in the downtown public library’s Civil Rights room records of many Nashville personalities who played a major role in the Movement. That does not provide a more suitable foundation for a Museum. The Morris building would also be a natural fit with the city’s 25 white museums.
The Morris Bldg. project would increase employment opportunities and it would not only provide more diverse interest but it would certainly resonate with the Mayor’s stated goal of expanded access for Black owned businesses and individuals that allows them to more fully participate in Nashville’s continuing growth and progress.
The Morris Building dates back to the mid-1920s, when it was established as the publishing arm of the National Baptist Convention. While we understand there are other uses under consideration for this property, we can’t think of one more suitable for a building originally designed by one of the nation’s first black-owned architectural firms, and one that’s part of a business district that has not received the respect, attention or consideration it deserves.
The creation of a Civil Rights Museum would be a big step towards revitalizing the entire area, and also recognize a part of our city’s heritage that is too often only noted in passing or briefly during Black History Month. Nashville’s role in the Civil Rights Movement is as historic equally and is as important and noteworthy as anything else in Nashville’s history, including our emergence as the “It City” and the evolution of “Music City.”
Remember: Tennessee offers the chance to learn about the struggles and triumphs of African Americans who helped to shape and build our country in other parts of Tennessee: Alex Haley Museum & Interpretive Center – Henning; Dunbar Carver Museum – Brownsville; National Civil Rights Museum – Memphis; Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum – Stax Mu Memphis; Stax Museum of American Soul Music – Memphis; Tina turner Museum and Flagg Grove School – Brownsville; Withers Collection Museum and Gallery – Memphis; Beck Cultural Center – Knoxville; Green McAdoo Cultural Center – Clinton; Bessie Smith Culture Center – Chattanooga; McLemore House Museum – Franklin; Nashville should take this step and make Nashville’s Civil Rights Museum the best in the nation, one befitting of its impact on the greatest social movement of the 20th century.
This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Tribune.