Women to the Rescue

by Carol Kaplan.

At the end of the 19th century City Cemetery was in crisis. Once a burial place for all Nashvillians, it had been supplanted by the newer and more beautiful Mt. Olivet, Mt. Ararat, and Calvary cemeteries. The Union Civil War dead had been transported to National; the Confederates, to Mt. Olivet. Neglected and ignored, City was described by the Banner on June 21, 1868, as a ruin: “robbery, murder and lust have held their horrid orgies in it and even now nightly desecrated by being the rendezvous of lascivious love.” No wonder the cemetery was promptly declared a “public nuisance” and burials were suspended the following month. A plan quickly came together within city government to remove all the graves and make the land a public park.

Sunset at Nashville City Cemetery (photo by Rebecca Sowell)

“Not so fast! Absolutely not!” Nashville’s women spoke out forcefully against such an idea. This was “sacred ground and should never be called a park,” protested Felicia Steger, a granddaughter of Felix Grundy. Women had found a new freedom of expression with the advent of the 20th century. In 1897 their Woman’s Building at the Tennessee Centennial had been a triumph. Now they found that, although not yet allowed to vote, they could nonetheless organize and engage in “civic housekeeping” with positive results. “We shall never have clean cities until the women undertake the job” was the credo of these busy ladies. Their noble efforts notwithstanding, a Banner reporter of 1900 expressed indignation that “women were boldly wearing ankle-length skirts on clear days because they were helpful in getting on and off streetcars.”

·         Woman’s building at Tennessee Centennial Exposition, 1897 (Image #27163; Calvert Brothers Photography Studio; courtesy of Tennessee State Library & Archives)

Saving and caring for City Cemetery became the focus of several groups. In 1903 the Tennessee Women’s Historical Association was organized, its specific purpose to preserve the cemetery. Sumner A. Cunningham, editor of the Confederate Veteran, claimed credit for suggesting its formation. He was the only male member of an industrious group that included Louise Lindsley and Carnegie librarian Mary Hannah Johnson. Other civic and patriotic organizations were asked to join them “to assist in improving and preserving the old city cemetery, to dispel the spirit of vandalism and promote civic pride. The Ladies’ Hermitage Association, DAR, UDC, and Colonial Dames all cooperated under this umbrella. One of their successful projects was the construction of a Memorial Gate at the 5th Avenue entrance. Dedicated in 1909, the gate exists only in pictures now, having been destroyed in an automobile accident during the 1930s. Wishing to do their part, Cumberland Chapter, DAR, erected a sundial to mark the path leading to the James Robertson family plot.

Nashville City Cemetery (photo by Rebecca Sowell)

The South Nashville Federation of Women was another group that worked to care for the City Cemetery grounds. The guidebook All About Nashville reported in 1912 that “with the cooperation of 400 members, they have cleared away the rubbish, pruned trees, graveled the walks, and planted a line of memorial elms and lastly, are in the process of erecting a handsome memorial gateway to the heroes of another day.” These gateposts, on 4th Avenue, still stand. May Winston Caldwell, whose parents and siblings are buried at City, remembered the pre-Civil War days when her mother and Peter, the gardener, came to care for the family plot. Now May, as a member of the South Nashville Women, was proudly carrying on that tradition.

Sign at City Cemetery entrance gate (NHN collection)

These hard-working women began a program of stewardship and restoration that has resumed in recent years after a period of neglect. Today the Nashville City Cemetery Association (composed of both men and women!) is ten* years old, making it the longest-lived and most professional volunteer organization ever to protect and renovate the grounds and markers: an endowment established at the Community Foundation will support the continuing restoration of the City Cemetery in the years to come. Thanks to the $3 million allocated by the Metro Council, and with the cooperation of the Metro Historical Commission and such citizen organizations as Master Gardeners of Davidson County, the cemetery is once again prepared to maintain its status as a historically valuable resting place of our pioneer heritage.        (2008)

A volunteer from the Master Gardeners of Davidson County works in one of the family plots (NHN photo)

Previously published in Monuments and Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.


* Note: This article was written in 2008. The NCCA began its work in 1998. By this time (late 2021) the organization is more than 23 years old.

Walker, Taylor, and Carr: The Men behind Nashville’s African American Parks and Cemeteries

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Although City Cemetery, Nashville’s first public burial ground (1822) accepted people of all races from the beginning, the rise of the “Jim Crow” South after the Civil War compelled African Americans to look elsewhere for a final resting place. In 1869 black businessman Nelson Walker and the Colored Benevolent Society bought land for Mt. Ararat Cemetery near the Elm Hill-Murfreesboro Pike intersection, directly behind today’s Purity Dairy plant. Walker (1825-1875), a barber at the Maxwell House, became an important figure in African American politics after the Civil War. Elected president of the first State Colored Men’s Convention (August 1865), he was active in the Masonic Order, the Sons of Relief, and the State Colored Emigration Board. Largely self-educated, he became a practicing attorney and later a Davidson County magistrate. An outspoken supporter of the public schools, Walker encouraged his seven children to become well educated – his daughter Virginia was a member of Fisk University’s first graduating class in 1875.

·         The Maxwell House Hotel, built between 1859 and 1869, was partially completed in 1862, when the occupying Federal forces used it as a hospital, a prison, and barracks for Union soldiers. (In 1863 over 100 Confederate soldiers fell five stories when a staircase collapsed, killing up to 45 men and injuring many more.) Maxwell House coffee, introduced by Nashville’s Cheek family, was served in the hotel dining room. The building was destroyed by fire on Christmas night 1961.

When Mt. Ararat burial plots went on sale in May 1869, church leaders urged their parishioners to purchase them. Mt. Ararat received considerable media attention in 1890 when Reverend Nelson Merry’s remains were reinterred there from City Cemetery, and again in 1892, after three heroic African American firemen lost their lives fighting a devastating fire in downtown Nashville. The day of their burial was declared a city-wide day of mourning, and the procession leading from their funeral ceremony at the Capitol to the cemetery was said to be over a mile long. Mt. Ararat (now Greenwood West) became part of the Greenwood Cemetery complex in 1982.

Another key figure in Nashville history was the Reverend Preston Taylor (1849-1931). Born into slavery, he served as a Union Army drummer boy when he was a young teenager. While still in his 20s he founded a Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, church, attracting the largest congregation in the state during his fifteen years there, while also working as a contractor to build several sections of the Big Sandy Railroad. After moving to Nashville, he preached at the Gay Street Christian church and also joined the Masons and the IOOF, holding state offices in both organizations.

Rev. Preston Taylor

As the 19th century ended, Preston Taylor committed himself to improving the social and economic condition of Nashville’s black community. Already well known as a local religious leader and businessman, he opened the city’s first African American mortuary, the Taylor Funeral Company, in 1888, the same year he and three others came together to purchase land for a “first class burial space . . . available at cost” for African American families. After his partners backed out of the project, Taylor alone funded the purchase of a 37-acre site on Elm Hill Pike and Spence Lane, near Buttermilk Ridge (so-called because of the scattering of dairy farms along the big S-curve on Lebanon Road east of Spence). Greenwood Cemetery, still in operation today, opened in 1888. Preston Taylor’s will deeded the cemetery to the Disciples of Christ religious organization, who continue to operate the facility (now merged with Mt. Ararat/ Greenwood West) as a non-profit enterprise. Preston Taylor is buried beneath a striking monument near the entrance to Greenwood. He was also involved in establishing the Lea Avenue Christian Church, the National Colored Christian Missionary Convention, the One Cent Bank (now Citizens Savings & Trust), and Tennessee State A&I Normal School (now Tennessee State University).

Preston Taylor’s monument in Greenwood Cemetery. (photo from NHN collection)

Jim Crow laws barred African Americans not only from cemeteries but also from many entertainment venues. However, in 1905 Preston Taylor responded to these restrictions by opening Greenwood Park north of the cemetery on the large unused portion of his original 37-acre land purchase. The park’s entrance stood just west of the intersection of Lebanon Road and Spence Lane. The first recreational park for Nashville’s black community, its attractions included a merry-go-round, a roller coaster, a shooting gallery, and a skating rink. Visitors could attend events at a baseball park, a bandstand, or a theatre, and if they were hungry, they could eat at a barbecue stand, a lunchroom, or a well-maintained picnic area. The area was spacious enough to include a Boy Scout camp, a racetrack, and a zoo, and it was home to the Colored State Fair, as well as other popular annual celebrations on Labor Day and July 4th. The Barbers’ Union, Masonic Lodges, and USCT veterans scheduled special events in the park. Taylor, who actually lived on the grounds, banned fighting, drinking, or cursing by Greenwood visitors and required them to dress appropriately. When white neighbors complained about Greenwood and its attendant congestion, only Ben Carr’s last-minute appeal to Governor Patterson rescued the park from ruinous legislation. In 1910 a suspicious fire destroyed Greenwood’s large grandstand, but no one was ever charged with the crime. Preston Taylor died in 1931, but the park survived until 1949, superintended by Taylor’s widow.

The Taylor home in Greenwood Park. (photo courtesy of Peggy Dillard)

Benjamin J. Carr (1875-1935) was another remarkable Tennessean, whose concern for his fellow black citizens resulted in the creation of both a second park and a notable educational institution. Born into poverty, Carr grew up working on farms in Trousdale County, Tennessee. He carefully set aside most of his meager earnings (50¢ per day) to purchase his own farm. In time, the frugal young man was able to pay off his mortgage with income from his tobacco crop. Shortly before 1900 Carr came to Nashville, where he was elected porter for the state Supreme Court and became an unexpected friend and ally of Governor Malcolm Patterson (1907-1911), who sent Carr on a lecture tour throughout Middle Tennessee to educate and inspire black farmers. Carr headed the citizens’ organization that brought the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State Normal School (Tennessee A&I, known today as Tennessee State University) to Nashville, and he was the school’s first agriculture teacher. He was also the driving force behind the city’s purchase of 34 acres near the college for use as a municipal park. When Mayor Hilary Howse dedicated Nashville’s Hadley Park in 1912, it became the first public park for African Americans in the entire nation.

Ben Carr (TSLA photo from Calvert Collection)

The name given to Hadley Park is still a matter of some dispute. When Major Eugene C. Lewis (chairman of the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway and director-general of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition) named the park, many assumed the title was a tribute to John L. Hadley, a white slave owner whose home plantation became the site of Tennessee State University. However, Lewis may have intended instead to honor Dr. W. A. Hadley (1850-1901), a physician-educator with whom he had worked closely during the Centennial Exposition, and for whom the Hadley School was named. A graduate of Meharry Medical College, Dr. Hadley had taught briefly in Davidson County schools before opening his medical practice. In 1880 he was elected secretary of the newly formed State Medical Association, and in 1883 he was chosen as a delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men at Louisville. He founded the Independent Order of the Immaculates and served on the executive committee (with Major E. C. Lewis) of the 1897 Centennial. After practicing medicine for several years, Hadley returned to teaching. At the time of his death, he was principal of Carter Public School in Nashville.



Adapted from the Greenwood Project.

Touring Elm Hill Pike

by Susan Douglas Wilson.

Elm Hill Pike is one of the most historic roads in Nashville. Few thoroughfares in our city contain so much history packed into so few miles. The road, which probably began as a buffalo or Indian trail, has been mentioned in several accounts of early Nashville history. Andrew Jackson was reported to be a frequent traveler on Elm Hill Pike on his journeys from downtown Nashville to the Hermitage. Mapmakers and old-timers have also referred to this road as “the chicken pike” and the Stones River Road.

As you turn off of Murfreesboro Pike onto Elm Hill Pike, the first historic site encountered is Mt. Ararat Cemetery on the north. Mount Ararat was founded in 1869 by local black leaders and became a burial ground for many of Nashville’s black pioneers. Over the years, the cemetery became a dumping ground and a target for vandals. In 1982 the management of Mt. Ararat was taken over by the Greenwood Cemetery’s board of directors, which voted to change the name from Mt. Ararat to Greenwood Cemetery West and to begin a comprehensive restoration project.

About a mile east of Mt. Ararat Cemetery is Greenwood Cemetery, established on thirty-seven acres in 1888 by Preston Taylor. Taylor, born a slave in Louisiana in 1849, was an influential black preacher, undertaker, and business leader. In addition to Taylor, illustrious Nashville citizens buried at Greenwood Cemetery include Z. Alexander Looby, the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr., DeFord Bailey, John Merritt, and J. C. Napier.

The gates of Mt. Ararat Cemetery (photograph from NHN Collection)

In 1906 Preston Taylor opened Greenwood Park on approximately forty acres adjoining Greenwood Cemetery. The park was established to serve the black community and included a baseball stadium, skating rink, swimming pool, theater, merry-go-round, bandstand, zoo, and many other attractions. A state-wide fair and a Boy Scout summer camp were also held at Greenwood Park. The admission to the park was ten cents on regular days and twenty-five cents on holidays. The Fairfield-Green streetcar stop was nearby and horse-drawn wagons would pick up patrons and deliver them to the park’s entrance at Lebanon Road and Spence Lane. Preston Taylor died in 1931 and his wife managed the park until its closing in 1949.

Buchanan’s Station was located about another mile east where Mill Creek crosses Elm Hill Pike. The station was established by John Buchanan in 1780. Twelve years later, an oft-recounted Indian battle ensued. On a moonlit night in 1792, a band of three hundred Creek and Cherokee, under the leadership of Chiachattalla, raided the station. The twenty-one settlers fought bravely and defeated their attackers, killing Chiachattalla. Major Buchanan lived at the station until his death in 1832. He is buried, along with his wife and other settlers, in the station’s cemetery.

John and Sally Buchanan’s gravestones in Buchanan Station Cemetery. (from NHN Collection)

Peabody College established the Seaman A. Knapp School of Rural Life in 1915 on one hundred fifty acres on Elm Hill Pike. More acreage, including the site of Buchanan’s Station, was acquired in 1922. The farm was the first institution in the United States devoted to the study of the problems of rural life. Peabody College officials believed that teachers should become acquainted with agricultural life since so many of them would be teaching in rural areas. The experimental farm became a showplace with award-winning dairy and beef cattle herds. Innovative techniques in irrigation, pasturage and field equipment were tested at the farm; and many crops were raised including a certified corn station and a contoured, 25-acre orchard. Knapp Farm provided Peabody College with all its meat, vegetables, and fruit until World War II. The importance of the farm declined after the 1920s because of state-supported agricultural research. Expensive to maintain, Knapp Farm was sold in 1965 to a contractor who developed it into an industrial park.

Though the exact location of Mud Tavern is disputed, most old-timers agree that it was near the intersection of Elm Hill Pike and McGavock Pike. The tavern, built during Nashville’s youth, was made of cedar logs with a mud and stick chimney. Andrew Jackson was a frequent patron and it is reported that he spent two days there planning strategy in his duel with the ill-fated Charles Dickinson. Years later a community named Mud Tavern grew up in the area and contained a railroad station, school, post office, and grocery store. The Mud Tavern school building was used for many years as a clubhouse by the Elm Hill Community Club.

On the far side of Donelson Pike, at the corner of Elm Hill Pike and Hurt Drive, is the James Buchanan house. This two-story log house was built circa 1809. James Buchanan and his wife are buried in the family graveyard near the house, which is now under the care of the Association for Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities.

At the present time, Elm Hill Pike ends at Bell Road. The eastern-most part of the road has been re-engineered several times. The course of the road itself may change, but the history of Elm Hill Pike will always remain as a significant part of Nashville’s heritage.  (2000)