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.

Remembering Nashville’s Daughters

by Carol Kaplan.

March is National Women’s History Month, a time to pause and reflect on those who have blazed the trail for us to follow. Here in Nashville it’s an easy and informative exercise, for we often hear the names of the women who have lived here and contributed to our city’s life. Yet, how much do we really know about these ladies, and how many others, just as interesting, have been forgotten?

Caroling for Fannie Battle is a Nashville tradition, but do we know that Miss Fannie, who never received a salary of more than $30 a month during her 50 years of service, was sent to prison for spying during the Civil War? Martha O’Bryan, for whom we crank ice cream, found her life’s meaning in helping others after her fiancé was executed by the Union Army. Christiana Rains, sliding her toddlers across the frozen Cumberland River to found Nashville on Christmas Day, 1779, and Stella Vaughn, the first woman staff member at Vanderbilt in 1905, are both pioneers.

Slave Sally Thomas saved her money and purchased freedom not for herself but for her little boy. Hetty McEwen flew her Union flag in Confederate Nashville. Mary Kate Patterson brought her friend Sam Davis breakfast on his last Sunday of freedom, galloping her horse so the coffee wouldn’t have time to cool.

In ante-bellum Nashville, teacher Charlotte Fall Fanning was so loved by her pupils that an extra Greek lesson was a sought-after treat. In our own time, Julia Green shocked men drivers by driving her Ford. Miss Julia was such a presence that teachers warned of her arrival by passing a green pencil so that everyone would be prepared. Hattie Cotton and Emma B. Clemons spent their lives serving Nashville’s children and were rewarded by having schools named for them. Anne Webber didn’t attend Watkins Institute, but left her large estate to help others do so.

Known primarily as founder of the UDC, Caroline Meriwether Goodlett also helped the horses of Nashville by founding the Tennessee Humane Society and placing drinking troughs on every corner. Needlework designer Anne Champe Orr provided employment for women in Appalachian Kentucky, who completed the appliqued quilts and delicate tablecloths her customers wanted to own, but not to make. Elizabeth Eakin devoted her fortune to the welfare and beautification of her city. Eakin School honors her service as the first female member of the Board of Education in 1917. When her four sons went to serve in World War I, Margaret Winston Caldwell ran their automobile dealership, the only woman dealer in the country. Her sister May Winston Caldwell, saddened by the loss of her son in that war, was the guiding spirit of the Peace or Battle of Nashville Monument. Erected in 1927 to commemorate reconciliation and the sacrifice of young men in war, the monument has recently been restored.

Elizabeth Eakin (Tennessee Portrait Project)

Lula Clay Naff was the manager of the Ryman Auditorium for 50 years, retiring in 1955. Rarely seeing a performance, unfazed by Barrymore, Hepburn, or Helen Hayes, Mrs. Naff always made a profit and never allowed any criticism of the facilities. Mary Dorris, Bettie Donelson, Louise Lindsley, and their friends organized the Ladies’ Hermitage Association and saved Jackson’s home from destruction. Ella Sheppard and her fellow students became the Fisk Jubilee Singers and rescued their university.

Almost all of these women lived and worked before they had the right to vote. Nashville was the battleground for the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Delia Dortch, J. Frankie Pierce, Warner family members, and countless others worked as hard as they ever had, propelled by the vision of leader Anne Dallas Dudley. “We have a vision of a time when a woman’s home will be the whole world, her children all those whose feet are bare, and her sisters all who need a helping hand; a vision of a new knighthood, a new chivalry, when men will not fight for women but for the rights of women.” Ironically, neither Anne Dudley’s nor Kate Burch Warner’s own daughters lived to adulthood to use the right for which their mothers had struggled.

Anne Dallas Dudley, 1908 (Tennessee Portrait Project)

These are just a few of the many women who have had an impact on Nashville. From Rhoda Calvert Barnard, who has a planet for a namesake, to Cornelia Clark Fort, sacrificing her young life for her country, Nashville’s daughters have lived with bravery and determination. Time and circumstances have made the challenges of each one different, but they are united in their courage and love for their city and country. We owe them respect and honor and have the obligation to keep their memory alive. (1999)