It started as a footpath between the Hadley Plantation on the west and went east to the Cumberland River. After the hundreds of feet had beaten it into a viable connector, it evolved into a wagon road. This was the beginning of Jefferson.

Jefferson Street today

When the Union Army occupied Nashville in 1862-1865, they set up large contraband camp at Ft. Gilliam in north Nashville. Bisecting Fort Gilliam was the footpath/wagon road.

In January 1866, the Fisk Free Colored School opened in federal barracks next to the present Union Station. This facility deteriorated rapidly, but the efforts of the Fisk Jubilee Singers during 1871 and 1872 allowed the school to purchase the Fort Gilliam site and construct Jubilee Hall on a high point between 17th and 18th with the wagon road behind it. The school was re-chartered Fisk University in 1872.

Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1941

Soon after the turn of the century, several Negro businessmen formed the Union Transportation Trolley Company and, according to the Nashville Globe, the Abraham Lincoln Land Company and the Realty Savings Bank and Trust Company offered lots for sale in the Fisk University Place subdivision, where Negro buyers paid five dollars down and five dollars a month to purchase a lot.

In 1912, the state legislature chartered the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal school on the western edge of Jefferson and returning vets from WWI were enrolling in college and increasing the buying market along Jefferson.

Retail, restaurants, pharmacies, funeral homes and churches were opening on Jefferson. You could be born, marry, raise your family, and be buried without ever leaving your Jefferson Street neighborhood. Prominent businesses along the street were K. Gardner’s Funeral Home, Isom’s Beauty Shop, William Hawkins North Side Ice Cream Company, William Hemphill’s Press, Terrance Restaurant, Jefferson Street Pharmacy, Menefee and Bauer Tire and Battery Service, I.E. Green Grocery Company, Terry’s Pharmacy, and Frank White’s Cleaners. By 1930, Crowders, the first barbershop for blacks, opened on Jefferson Street.

In the mid 1930s Meharry Medical College moved to its new campus across from Fisk University.
Meharry Cancer Treatment, 1941

The 23 blocks from Fifth Avenue North to Twenty-eighth Avenue North also contained some of the oldest Church Congregations as well as Engine Company No. 11, the first African-American firehall in the country, which served as a local gathering spot for Jefferson residents.

Jefferson was alive with the smells of home-cooked food, the clang of the trolley and music coming from the small hole-in-the-wall clubs, supper clubs, dance halls and jazzy night spots, beer joints and pool rooms. There were first-run movies at the beautiful Ritz and small barbeque joints and elegant supper clubs everywhere.

The Golden Age of Jefferson

Many long-time Nashvillians consider 1935 – 1965 the Golden Age of Jefferson Street.

Anybody who wanted to see and be seen was out and about on Jefferson. Show business headliners stopped in Nashville to try their acts. The Silver Streak, the great off-Jefferson St. ballroom booked such big names as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Duke Ellington performed
on Jefferson Street.

Members of the old Negro Baseball League and recording artists such as Little Richard, Ruth Brown, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald were staying at the elegant Brown’s Hotel and playing the famous Blue Room at Del Morocco, owned by “Uncle” Teddy Acklen.

And Thanksgiving morning always marked the traditional celebration of A.&I.’s homecoming with a parade down Jefferson.

There were great people watching on Jefferson.

I-40 and desegregation mark the end of the
Golden Era

But the golden era was over in the 60s when the Jefferson Street Corridor received two mortal blows – an interstate and desegregation. Interstate 40 bisected the street and cut off traffic to business. And when the I-40 fences came down, the customers did not come back. Desegregation gave black customers shopping choices in white stores. The Ritz Closed. The Club Del Morocco was torn down and an interstate ran through it. An estimated 126 Jefferson Area businesses failed.

The once vibrant area was now a collection of businesses just holding on, boarded-up buildings, and cracking sidewalks.
Some people said, Jefferson Street was “gone but not forgotten.” To others it was “forgotten but not gone.”

No doubt about it. Jefferson has had its fill of promises and let downs since the golden age. But the merchants and residents never gave up on Jefferson. There was too much history, too many memories, and too many neighborhood family ties to walk away.

And good things started happening.

In 1994 the Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership was formed to help Jefferson Street business owners – believing that the real revitalization of Jefferson will come from the people who own the property and are a part of the Jefferson Street Family – not just investors looking to make a fast buck and a fast exit.

In 1996, Tennessee’s 200th birthday present to itself was the beautiful Bicentennial Mall between the state capitol and Jefferson with a 31-jet fountain, historic walkways, amphitheater and greenway. The Farmer’s Market went modern with a beautiful new building full of restaurants, specialty stores, and fish market.
Price Plaza on Jefferson Street

In 1997, the College Crib corner expanded to become the new Price Plaza, a 12,000 sq. ft. center with 48 new parking spaces and five new shops a gospel record store, a Subway, barber shop, video store and Beep One Inc. paging. Along with the historic College Crib.

Kijiji’s Coffeehouse opened in November 1997, moved to a new building in 2002, and opened a second location, Trend Zetters, in 2003.

In 1998, Metro General Hospital was relocated on the campus of Meharry Medical Center and investors came to build medical offices. In 2003, the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center broke ground at 14th and Jefferson.
Historic marker honoring Jefferson Street’s heydey as one of America’s best known music districts.

In 2003 the historical marker went up to remember Jefferson’s musical heyday and the new Otey’s Corner opened at D. B Todd and Jefferson and the United Child Care Center opened, offering 24-hour child care. That same year Woodcuts custom framing and African American Art celebrated 17 years on Jefferson, the Onyx Room 15 years, and the Tennessee Tribune had its 13th birthday on the historic street.

In 2003 Gospel Shop co-owner announced plans for a music studio and a mini-movie theater that will show African-American independent films set to open within the shop by December 2004.

And on July 18, 2003 the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center broke ground for their new primary health care center at Jefferson and 14th Avenue North. The projected economic impact of this new facility to the Jefferson Street community shows $5.49 million more in household earnings and 170 new jobs generated.
The Family Dollar Store on Jefferson Street.

But while the Jefferson Street partnership has its eye on the future it keeps a close watch on how the new mixes with the past. Nobody wants economic success to mean that historic Jefferson ends up looking like an interstate exit full of thrown-up-overnight buildings and cookie cutter theme restaurants. When Jefferson Street business leaders asked Family Dollar to build their new store on Jefferson in keeping with the character of the street – the national chain dumped plans for their regular aluminum building and went to brick.

Jefferson business partners all pretty much agree in the Fisk University doctrine of “we are not in the habit of tearing down what we can restore.”

Keep the character. Keep the culture.
And that will keep Jefferson thriving and growing.

Our thanks to the following for their information, photographs, time and interest:
Public Library of Nashville and Davidson County

Nashville Room – A Journey Down Jefferson St.
Linda Everett, Artistic Director
(Senior Programs of Metropolitan Parks)

Black History Program –
Leaders of Afro-American Nashville – Reavis L. Mitchell, Jr.

The following photos from the Banner collection – Nashville Room:

* Meharry Cancer Treatment, 1941
* Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1941
* J.C. Napier, President of Citizens Bank, 1938
* June 1962 at Sulphur Dell – Satchel Page and Goose Tatum

Metro Nashville Public Archives – Green Hills