By Kayleigh Whitman, Department of History and Mellon Graduate Student Fellow
For the past two and a half years I have worked closely with the public history nonprofit Nashville Sites, which creates historical walking tours of the city and makes them available for free on their website, nashvillesites.org. My work with the project began in 2018 when I was selected as a HASTAC scholar and I quickly learned about the various technologies and processes that go into the creation and maintenance of site like this. Nashville Sites captures so much of what defines a DH project: it’s inclusive, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and (obviously) digital. I want to specifically consider how this project has relied upon collaborations, between numerous institutions and the public, and how it has encouraged inclusivity through its tour curation.
Nashville Sites was developed by Dr. Mary Ellen Pethel, a historian at Belmont University, while she was working on a Digital Humanities certificate at George Mason University in 2017-2018. As she learned more about DH, she began to conceive of a digital platform that would use mapping, historical images, and narrative to tell Nashville’s story. The research and narratives would be completed by scholars and local experts – archivists, public historians, and neighborhood leaders – who know not only the city’s history but understand its relation to larger historical events. The website officially launched in 2019 and now has over twenty-five tours available on the site. Some of the tours highlight present day structures that might pique visitors’ curiosity – honkytonks on the “Music in Music City” tours, government buildings on “Civic and Public Spaces,” and historic churches on “Old Time Religion” – while others explore specific moments in Nashville’s history – the Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement. There are tours outside of the downtown area as well, like the East Nashville or Fort Negley tours. Each tour on the site is based upon historical scholarship (yes, even the WeHo Happy Hour tour) and all of them offer a unique perspective in the telling of Nashville’s history.
Changing perspective is helpful when considering Nashville’s history, which is often dominated by country music lore and the Civil War in public discourse. Nashville Sites expands these narratives through both its offerings and its curation. For example, one of the first tours offered on the site was “Woman’s Suffrage,” which retraces the steps of women like Carrie Chapman Catt and Tennessee native Sue Shelton White during the final battle to ratify the 19th Amendment. After their efforts in Nashville, Tennessee voted in favor of the amendment, fulfilling the 3/4th state requirement to change the constitution. I had lived in Nashville for over a year before I learned of these events, and it was through Nashville Sites. If we think about Nashville Sites as offering a “highlights” in Nashville’s history for interested visitors or locals, then including stories like the struggle for suffrage demonstrates the different dimensions of the city’s identity.
Another way that the project promotes inclusive local history is by crafting tours that reflect the perspectives of Nashvillians that for many years were overlooked in popular narratives. The Fort Negley tour is a great example of this, as it was created in consultation with the Fort Negley Descendants Project and even narrated by a descendant, Mr. Gary Burke! Fort Negley is a Civil War fort that was built for Union troops by African-Americans and guarded by members of the USCT. After the war, the first free African-American communities in Nashville were built at the foot of St. Cloud Hill, upon which the fort stood. Fort Negley’s story is inseparable from the Civil War, but as the Nashville Sites tour makes clear, it is also a story about community building, contested legacies, and gentrification (which threatened to destroy the fort in 2017).
This past year, we have worked to create two new tours that provide a more complete picture of the city’s history. The tours are the Civil Rights Movement and Historic Jefferson Street, and both focus on the history of African-Americans in Nashville. Jefferson Street was the historic center of Nashville’s Black community, surrounded by Black businesses, churches, and entertainment venues. It connects three major African-American institutions of higher learning—Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and TSU—and served as a hub for the planning of downtown sit-ins to protest segregation in the 1960s. When Interstate 40 was constructed it cut Jefferson Street in half, leading to the neighborhood’s economic decline. These tours will tell both of these stories—that of the neighborhood and the movement it supported—as part of Nashville’s larger heritage.
Driving tours in particular allow us to create the most comprehensive narratives to date. For example, through the Civil Rights driving tour we will be able to link TSU, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, Downtown and East Nashville together into one tour that crosses the city, connecting narratives that are often separated. We will expand the traditional narrative beyond the sit-ins to consider the wider landscape of protest that characterized the movement. It also allows people to experience the physical space in a different way. They will be able to see where the interstate severed Jefferson Street and experience the geographic reach of the fight for civil rights. By changing the means of taking the tours, these histories will be preserved, shared, and spatially reinterpreted for a public audience.
All of the tours that have been discussed would not have been possible without collaboration between different scholars from a variety of institutions. For the driving tours, the majority of the narratives was completed by Dr. Learotha Williams at Tennessee State University, and Dr. Brandon Owens, and Professor Linda Wynn of Fisk University. These two schools also contributed student researchers who aided in the research. Other members of the team included Dr. Pethel and Jessica Reeves of the Metro Historical Commission. What I have enjoyed most about working with this group is the expertise that each member brings to the project. Each of the members (myself excluded) has worked extensively in public history and through their own relationships with the community, archival knowledge, and personal experiences, we are putting together tours that tell a more complete history of Nashville and that challenge takers to consider the contributions of all Nashvillians.
Keep an eye on nashvillesites.org for the driving tours later this year!