NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — There was a time when Nashville’s Jefferson Street was home to a vibrant and thriving African American community, something Nathaniel Harris remembers.
“They would have drug stores, five and dime stores, gas stations, dry cleaners, night clubs,” the long-time resident recalled.
Lorenzo Washington, another long-time resident, remembers that time too.
“At the age of eight, nine, ten years old, we’re still walking down Jefferson Street, and here’s all of these businesses, (and) restaurants,” Washington said.
After the Civil War, Fisk University opened its doors, and soon Meharry Medical College, Tennessee State University, other businesses and life came to Jefferson Street for Nashville’s African Americans.
“Jefferson Street was the only street in the city that we could call our street,” said Washington.
Harris’ home was just a few miles away from Jefferson Street.
“I actually went to Pearl High which is MLK High School now,” he said. “I went to the great Tennessee State University.”
In the late 1960’s all of that would change.
“We had to move when I was a sophomore in high school,” said Harris. “The interstate, I-40 runs right over where I used to live.”
President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 authorizing millions of dollars to create our country’s interstate system.
Here in Nashville, city leaders decided I-40 would be built running through Jefferson Street.
“The whole community looked like they just dropped a bomb,” said Harris. “I mean they just wiped out everything.”
Washington said because of construction it was hard for businesses to survive.
“Businesses at that point started losing business because they would cut the street off,” he said. “You couldn’t go up and down Jefferson Street.”
The sound of change was taking over, and there was nothing many in this community could do but leave.
“It was a really, really, sad time,” said Washington.
In the late 1980’s, Harris returned to Jefferson Street, purchasing a building from Fisk University to open Woodcuts Gallery and Framing.
“We did a demographic study that said that this area wouldn’t support a frame shop,” he said.
But Harris knew that wouldn’t be the case, defying those odds 35 years later.
“I knew it could work,” Harris said. “I knew the community. I had been here all my life, and I knew it would work.”
Up the street in 2010, Washington also returned opening the Jefferson Street Sound Museum, a place dedicated to preserving Jefferson Street’s rich musical history.
“I looked for a place on Jefferson Street because I wanted to be a part of the new growth,” said Washington.
Jefferson Street is changing again with gentrification.
“Property values are very high,” said Harris. “The ability to get a loan to acquire those properties is very difficult especially when you have speculators that come in with cash.”
Washington agrees, noticing the lack of Black businesses on the street compared to back in the day.
“There are still a lot of younger entrepreneurs that (are) a little afraid of investing not knowing how the traffic would be over here on Jefferson,” he said.
The Jefferson Street these men know no longer exists, but Harris is hopeful.
“I still have hope that we can have new businesses,” he said.
Until then, memories, stories, and current businesses will help others remember what it use to be while it transitions to the future.
“We have a legacy,” said Washington. “We as a race of people have a legacy here on North Nashville, on Jefferson Street.”