By Ginna Foster Cannon, CHP Graduate Research Assistant
Doctoral students in the Public History Program at MTSU are required to do a nine-month professional residency, as well as participate in a monthly colloquium. In my cohort of six students, residency projects include developing a digital collection on a textile mill community in Rome, Georgia, for the Southern Places database; interpreting and developing signage for Fort Granger, a Civil War site in Franklin, Tennessee; and designing an online exhibit for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in addition to teaching an undergraduate course in Public History at MTSU. The diversity of our residencies speaks to the breadth of both the practice of public history and our individual interests.
For my residency, I am writing a “white paper” study of National Register-listed hotels and inns in Tennessee for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. This heritage development plan will provide an updated inventory of the twenty-five identified properties to assess their potential as heritage assets.
Because African Americans were not allowed to stay at inns and hotels that served white travelers in Tennessee during the era of segregation, I will do additional research on properties listed in the guidebook for African American travelers known as the Green Book, published by Victor Green from 1936 to 1964. The “Colored Hotel” in Union City is the only African American hotel property listed on the National Register in Tennessee (2008).
To date, I have visited nine of my targeted sites, logged thousands of miles, and gained a deeper appreciation for how landscapes of all types–historic, built, political, and cultural–contribute to significance, a key element of National Register-eligibility. Fieldwork is giving me a feel for the unique personalities of Tennessee’s historic travel establishments and their communities. While these hotels and inns are historic, they are very much grounded in the present. How they are used and developed matters to more than just those who have a financial stake in them. Regardless of state of repair, current operating status, or official historic designation, the establishments are often sources of pride for community members. The buildings are a tangible link to the past and speak to a community’s longevity. Many of them also seem to speak to the promise of the future–a well-maintained and marketed historic hotel can be a destination and bring heritage tourism dollars to the community. They also can be rehabilitated into offices (such as the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville), nursing homes (Guest House/Alexander Inn in Oak Ridge), and individual residences (Watertown Bed & Breakfast), thereby contributing to a community’s tax base.
Going into my residency, I viewed importance and National Register-listing as synonymous. As a born-and-bred New Yorker, Nashville transplant, and academic, I privileged large, urban hotels listed on the National Register over small, rural establishments that are not listed (see photos below). How mistaken I was! Regardless of their official status, historic hotels and inns provide inspiration for communities, linking the past, present, and future in wood, brick, and stone. If you would like to follow my travels across the state, please visit my blog, “Reflections on Historic Hotels in Tennessee.”