Nashville-Tuskegee Ties, Part I: Medicine, Music, & Architecture

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.

Dr. Halley Tanner Dillon Johnson (1864-1901)

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)

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 C. Ashhurst (1908-1995)

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)

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.

Moses McKissack III (1870-1952)

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.

Calvin McKissack (1890-1968)

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.

Tuskegee Army Airfield, 1943

Learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen in “Nashville-Tuskegee Connections, Part II.”


Some of this material has been adapted from the Greenwood Project.

Dr. Felix Randolph Robertson (1781-1865)

by Jill Farringer Meese.

Felix Randolph Robertson, a man of diverse talents, contributed much to the development of Nashville from its beginnings through the Civil War. Born January 11, 1781, to Nashville founders James and Charlotte Robertson, he was the first Caucasian child born in the new settlement.

Dr. Felix R. Robertson (Tennessee Portrait Project)

Although the son of a pioneer, Robertson earned a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He studied under Dr. Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and graduated in 1806, specializing in children’s diseases.

Robertson courted Lydia Waters in Maryland but, uneasy about asking Lydia to abandon her comfortable surroundings for a frontier town, returned alone to Nashville to build his home and practice. He erected a two-story building at 129 Cherry Street (near today’s 4th Avenue N. and Church Street) that served him as both office and home, and he became Nashville’s first pediatrician.

Eighteen months later Robertson returned to propose to Lydia, who not only accepted but also arranged to bring her mother and siblings to Nashville. The couple married on October 8, 1808.

Lydia and Felix Robertson had eight children before Lydia’s 1832 death at 44. Felix never remarried, remaining a widower for 33 years.

Dr. Robertson made many contributions to the field of medicine but is probably best known for advocating the use of quinine to treat malarial fevers. Founder and first president of the Nashville Medical Society, he served as president of the Medical Society of Tennessee from 1834-1840. He was a professor of medicine in the University of Nashville Medical Department, served briefly as president of the Bank of Tennessee, and was twice elected mayor of Nashville.

Dr. Felix Robertson, pioneer, physician, Jeffersonian Republican politician, Mayor of Nashville

In 1826 Robertson, as president of the Texas Association, led thirty men to Texas to survey land and start a settlement in what is now Robertson County, Texas. Though he did not stay in Texas, his cousin, Sterling Clack Robertson did. After winning a legal battle with Stephen F. Austin over the land, Sterling surveyed and established Nashville, Texas, on the Brazos River.

Felix Robertson lived alone in his later years after all six surviving children married and settled outside of Nashville. He died in 1865, at the age of 84, from injuries sustained in a buggy accident caused by a runaway horse. The first-born Nashvillian had lived through the War of 1812, the growth and development of “the Athens of the South,” and the devastating Civil War, in which family members fought on both sides.  His positive impact on Nashville is reflected in his tombstone inscription in City Cemetery: “First white child born in Settlement now called Nashville. Distinguished as a physician. Foremost as citizen.”  (2013)

Felix Robertson’s tomb in Nashville City Cemetery

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.