by Kathy B. Lauder.
Nashvillians have built some important connections with Tuskegee, Alabama, over the years, primarily in the fields of education, medicine, music, and the military.
Booker T. Washington hired Dr. Halley Tanner Dillon (1864-1901) to be resident physician at Tuskegee Institute in 1891. After passing the state’s challenging medical exam, Dillon became the first woman, black or white, to practice medicine in Alabama. At Tuskegee she taught several classes, supervised the infirmary, established a dispensary where she mixed her own medicines, and founded a nursing school. She returned to Nashville after marrying Pastor John Quincy Johnson in 1894. When she died in childbirth at age 36, her death certificate listed her profession as “housekeeper.”
Dr. John Henry Hale (1878-1944), a member of the Meharry faculty for nearly 40 years, was chairman of the Department of Surgery (performing more than 30,000 operations) as well as associate director of the Tumor Clinic, while also serving as head surgeon at Nashville’s Millie E. Hale Hospital. President (1935) of the National Medical Association, he was a longtime patron of the Tuskegee Institute and oversaw the Surgical Clinics there.
Dr. John Christopher Ashhurst (1908-1995), a native of British Guyana, served as chief pathologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama, before moving to Nashville in the mid-1960s to become head of surgical pathology at Meharry Medical College, while at the same time serving as the county medical examiner.
Thomas W. Talley (1870-1952), acknowledged as Tennessee’s first African American folklorist, began collecting folk songs about 1900 and published a collection, Negro Folk Rhymes, in 1922, a decade before Lomax and Niles. A Fisk graduate who later taught chemistry and choral music at his alma mater, Talley had previously taught at Tuskegee Institute (1900-1903).
Marcus H. Gunter (1918-2003) earned a degree in music at Tuskegee Institute. During college he performed with the Tuskegee Melody Barons, a popular dance band, and he later studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. During World War II, Gunter, a warrant officer, was director of the 41st Engineers Band in France. In 1947 he began a 39-year teaching career as music teacher and band director at Pearl High School. After retiring from his teaching career, he became owner and director of a Nashville funeral home.
Daughter of a Philadelphia longshoreman, Dorothy Coley Edmond (1927-2006) attended Fisk University, then earning a nursing degree from Meharry Medical College, a master’s degree from Columbia University, and an Ed.D. from Peabody College. She worked as a nursing instructor at Tuskegee Institute before marrying and returning to Nashville, where she established the School of Nursing at Tennessee State University. She is believed to be the first African American registered nurse ever to become a member of the Tennessee Nurses Association.
Born in Pulaski, Tennessee, Moses McKissack III (1879-1952) was the grandson of a slave who passed on his skills as a “master builder” to his descendants. As a teenager, Moses was hired by a local contractor to create designs and drawings for a Pulaski construction business. From 1895-1905 the youngster oversaw building crews in Tennessee and Alabama before moving to Nashville, where he and his brother Calvin opened their own firm –Among their first projects were Fisk University’s Carnegie Library and the residence of Vanderbilt’s dean of architecture and engineering. Later projects included Pearl High School and the TSU Memorial Library, as well as many other schools, homes, churches, and office buildings throughout the South. Now based in New York City and Washington, D.C., McKissack & McKissack remains the oldest minority-owned architectural engineering company in the U.S.
Like his older brother Moses, Fisk University graduate Calvin McKissack (1890-1968) earned his architecture degree through a correspondence course and from lessons passed down by their grandfather. Not long after they opened their Nashville firm (1905), Calvin started a satellite company in Dallas. However, he eventually returned to Nashville to teach industrial drawing at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School (now Tennessee State University), which had opened in June 1912. Six years later he was hired to be director of Pearl High School’s industrial arts department, and he presently became executive secretary of the Tennessee State Association of Teachers in Colored Schools. When the state enacted a law requiring architects to be registered (1921), the McKissacks were nearly banned from taking the licensing examination because of their race. State administrators eventually conceded, evidently assuming neither brother would be able to pass, but when the authorities continued to dither after both men sailed through the exam, the national media took up the story . . . whereupon the McKissack brothers promptly received their licenses, and their company officially became Tennessee’s first professional African American architectural firm. Their $5.7 million contract (1942) to design and build the 99th Pursuit Squadron Air Base in Tuskegee, Alabama, was the largest federal contract ever granted to an African American firm up to that time. The base was the home of the Tuskegee Airmen, African American fighter pilots who would gain the admiration of the entire world for their skill and courage in combat. Moses McKissack, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed to the White House Conference on Housing Problems, continued to head the firm until his death in 1952. His brother Calvin succeeded him, handing the reins to Moses’s son, William DeBerry McKissack, in 1968.
Learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen in “Nashville-Tuskegee Connections, Part II.”
Some of this material has been adapted from the Greenwood Project.