Here we go again. After fighting a successful battle several years ago to preserve Studio A, a piece of local history on Music Row, Nashvillians are being called upon again to prevent another historical landmark from being torn down and sacrificed on the altar of real estate developers. We recently learned that the city is proposing to auction off (to the highest bidder) a beloved community/neighborhood park around the corner from Music Row in a neighborhood that has been wrestling with gentrification for almost two decades. This isn't an empty lot or a series of vacant houses. It's neighborhood green-space that is fully utilized by the residents of Edgehill Community.
In addition to being fully uitlized and cared for, the neighborhood park is where celebrated African American Artist, William Edmonson lived and worked and is why it is considered by many to be hallowed ground. As the first African American to be given a one person show at the Museum of Modern Art--in the 1930's, Edmonson's legacy is one that bolsters and feeds the spirit of Edgehill. When you consider the Klu Klux Klan was just getting started terrorizing Black people about an hour down the road in Columbia Tennessee, this is quite significant and historical.
On the same land where Edmonson created his historic sculptures, it is now where people commune, grow food, celebrate and play--in the middle of our city. While the entire 7-acre tract was not Edmondson's land, it is his homestead and he was surrounded by family members and friends, some who were ex-slaves. His studio was 'open air' and it is where almost all of his work was created which is why residents feel a spiritual connection to the land. Also significant, is the park is located in the midst of a food desert, and home to community gardens, where young children learn about growing food and where families gather to feel grass under their feet, play and celebrate.
There is great concern and opposition to this 'development free for all' (as some are calling it) and perhaps a brief look at history can help explain why people are experiencing a collective shiver when Mayor Briley and city leaders talk about auctioning off their park to developers because of budget constraints. "Why not Percy Warner or another park in another neighborhood" they wonder?
In 1865, after the adoption of 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which abolished slavery, there was a famous Field Order 15 issued by General William T. Sherman which set aside a huge swath of abandoned land along the Georgia and South Carolina coast where black families were promised land on forty acre plots hence "Forty Acres and a Mule"--which is a myth because it never actually happened. This gesture was considered a way to 'even the playing field' and perhaps make up for several hundred years of generational enslavement.
Instead Congress allowed the Freedmen's Bureau to sell 5-10 acre tracts of land to freed slaves. The same enslaved people who had worked their entire lives for free for white people--as did their parents, grand parents and great grand parents before them were 'sold' the land.
By June of 1865 after 40,000 some freed slaves were settled on what was referred to as "Sherman's Land" but only months later, President Johnson quickly reversed Sherman's Field order and virtually all plantation land was returned to original plantation owners.
The prospect of owning land for people who had previously been 'owned' was empowering and transformative. That was taken away.
I dare to bore you with a few historical details to point out that while White Folks received free land in the latter part of the 19th century to settle the west, Black people were mostly sold land (that was abandoned) after several centuries of enslavement only to have it quickly taken away. It is a pattern that has persisted for over a century--repeatedly and often violently.
All these uncomfortable realities help illustrate how Black people have been dealing with white people appropriating land since Reconstruction. And throughout history, almost every time Black people created thriving communities, there have been attempts to destroy and curtail their progress and spirit. One extreme case in point is the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 in Tulsa Oklahoma which destroyed what was known as Black Wall Street, a prosperous, modern, and sophisticated community that was brutally and strategically eviscerated--almost overnight.
And while no one is comparing Tulsa with the recent real estate shenanigans occurring in Nashville (or calling anyone evil), there is a long standing history that makes it easier for white folks to overlook an unconscious habit of behaving in a way which suggests: "if you have something we need, we will take it"--certainly when it comes to land and particularly if you are a community of color.
And here we are in 2018 where the brutal legacy of overt racism in our country has made a resurgence. And thanks to our current President, hardly a day goes by without a legislative proposition or an overt act that demonizes and diminishes the value of non-white life.
While there is much to love about our growing city, Nashville has attracted real estate developers who are not connected to our communities nor do they feel an allegiance to preserving our history. For many, Nashville has received an involuntary facelift and is becoming unrecognizable. Green space is on the endangered list as numerous landmarks have already sold to the highest bidder.
In the past several years we have witnessed that properties inhabited by people of color hold a particular attraction to developers and quite often the result is, once purchased people of color will soon disappear. While we have come close to losing other significant green space and land rich in cultural history several times recently, each time our city leaders underestimated the resolve of Nashvillians.
People in Edgehill are thriving on the land at Edmonson Homestead and this is empowering and transformative for many--especially those who live in low income housing and own nothing.
Let's break the cycle. Now. Yes, the city needs to balance the books. But at what point do we stop the practice of 'this land is your land'--until 'we' need it?
Let Mayor Briley, the Metro City Council and our brothers and sisters in Edgehill Community know you feel as strongly about William Edmonson Homestead as Studio A on Music Row.