NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A community’s history and today’s modern technology intersect through a special project here in Nashville.
A Tennessee State University professor is working with tech-giant Apple to bring North Nashville’s civil rights impact straight to your fingertips.
“What we’ve tried to do was to amplify marginalized voices, try to look and listen to people that had been lost from the larger narrative,” said Dr. Learotha Williams, Jr. an Associate Professor of African American and Public History at TSU.
If the walls and streets of North Nashville could talk, oh, the stories they’d tell. And Dr. Learotha Williams hears some of those tales from story-telling pros at local barbershops.
“I would go there and a lot of the elders that were there were TSU alum, so once they found out that I wasn’t up to any nefarious sort of activities they began to open up and began to tell me stories about civil rights and other things. Things that might’ve been known under the surface but hadn’t been talked about in public or academic spaces,” he recalled.
They are stories he wants to bring from their memories to the palm of your hand.
“To be frank, the city has done a very poor job of telling these stories until recently,” he said.
Dr. Williams is working with Apple to create an app that shares how North Nashville and TSU impacted Music City’s civil rights story.
We have a building on campus – Elliot Hall – which I would make the argument was one of the most important buildings in this city,” he said. “I say that because a lot of the students that participated in the civil rights movement in the city were recruited right there in the cafeteria.”
- A photograph of leaders from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leaving the Estes Kefauver Federal Building and United States Courthouse in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, on May 23, 1967. They were attending a trial of a suit contesting anti-riot laws following riots in North Nashville. In the black and white photo by Nashville Banner staff photographer Vic Cooley are (from left to right): H. Rap Brown , Stokely Carmichael, and George Ware. (Metro Archives)
- A photograph of student demonstrators being arrested and escorted into a paddy wagon after a nonviolent protest at the Greyhound Bus Terminal, 6th Avenue and Commerce Street, Nashville, Tennessee, March 3, 1960. Students continued demonstrations in an effort to desegregate all public accommodations. Forms part of the Nashville Banner Archives. (Metro Archives)
- A photograph of student demonstrators, in front of the previously segregated Post House Restaurant located inside the Greyhound Bus Terminal, 6th Avenue and Commerce Street, Nashville, Tennessee, March 3, 1960. Led by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member James Bevel, the demonstrators challenged the restaurant with what would be known as the Interstate Commerce Commission ruling to desegregate all eating facilities in rail, air, and bus terminals. (Metro Archives)
- Tennessee State University c.1960s (Metro Archives)
- A postcard of the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College campus. This school was established in 1912 for the higher education of African American youth. Today the school is known as Tennessee State University. (Metro Archives)
- A photograph of a massive crowd of silent marchers at the Court House Square, Davidson County Courthouse, James Robertson Parkway, Nashville, Tennessee, April 19, 1960. A crowd of over 3000 participants marched in silence from the campus of Tennessee A & I University to the office of Mayor Ben West at City Hall to protest the bombing of the home of civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby. Upon arriving at the Court House Square, students and leaders confronted Mayor Ben West about his viewpoints on lunch counter segregation. This was the first major step in desegregating public accommodations in Nashville. (Courtesy: Metro Archives)
- Pictured: Nashville Mayor Ben West (left) with Dr. Z Alexander Looby (right), circa February, 1955. Looby was born in Antigua, British West Indies, on April 8, 1899. He was a notable African-American lawyer and a staunch civil rights advocate and served on the old city council and the new Metropolitan Council for twenty years. In 1963 Looby became a member of the Metropolitan Charter Commission. Mayor Ben West was the 62nd mayor of Nashville, in office from 1951-1963. (Metro Archives)
Another story he’ll share involves Z. Alexandar Looby. According to Historic Nashville Inc., he was the most important civil rights attorney in the state and one of two Black city councilmen when his home was bombed on April 19, 1960.
“The silent march that occurred in the aftermath of the bombing of Z. Alexander Looby’s home began at TSU at the airplane like they call it on campus, but it’s actually a jet,” said Williams.
His mission is taking flight with his students working on the app too.
Williams says it’s not just stories from the 60s, but they’ll look back to the 1930s and 40s and jump ahead to TSU students in the social justice fight happening to this day.
“It will allow us to tell a story that celebrates us, that celebrates TSU, that celebrates North Nashville, that gives our stories and our truths,” he said.
They’re working to get the app launched by Fall 2022.
“I’ll have the opportunity to say to the world when you come to Nashville you need to pay attention to this person and this person and this person,” Williams said. “But more importantly, I think that it’ll evolve just as the field of history evolves. As we learn more, we have a better understanding of the past, our analysis changes.”