Honoring the Dead, Anchoring the Living: The Unexpected Histories of African American Funeral Homes in Tennessee

By Brad Miller, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

While I was searching for a thesis topic that combined my interests in African American history and the built environment, Dr. Van West suggested that I look at African American funeral homes in Tennessee. The Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) has long partnered with African American communities across the state to interpret their rich pasts, but funeral homes had never been at the center of these studies. I was honestly creeped out by the prospect of studying buildings that solely existed for the care of the dead. Sure, I have always been a fan of historic cemeteries, but they convey a much different, more natural atmosphere. After stubbornly searching for other topics last summer, I wound up back with African American funeral homes and have realized they are keys to one of the most fascinating aspects of the African American experience from Reconstruction to the present.

G.W. Franklin Undertaker in Chattanooga, Tennessee, circa 1890s. One of the many images W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway used for the

G.W. Franklin, undertaker, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, circa 1890s. One of the many images W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway used for the “American Negro Exhibit” at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

African Americans had achieved freedom in the Civil War and were discovering ways to express their newly acquired citizenship. Caring for the dead became one aspect of emerging African American communities that were striving for autonomy with the growth of their own churches, social organizations, and businesses. A modern funeral industry emerged in the 1880s, which replaced the care and burial of the deceased by community-based burial societies. These early professional undertakers embalmed and transported bodies, arranged funeral services, and sold coffins.

Jarnigan & Son Undertakers (now Jarnigan & Sons Mortuary) in Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1880s-1890s. Courtesy of Walker Library.

Jarnigan & Son Undertakers (now Jarnigan & Sons Mortuary) in Knoxville, Tennessee, circa 1880s-1890s. Courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, via “Trials and Triumphs: Tennesseans Search for Citizenship, Community, and Opportunity” (www.mtsu.edu/trialsandtriumphs).

As the era of Jim Crow gradually took hold following Reconstruction, death care became a strongly segregated business. African American funeral homes emerged as the center for a particularly racialized death defined by increased racial violence and inadequate resources for health care. The separate customer base provided economic stability, which allowed funeral professionals to invest in their communities and rise up as civic leaders. For example, undertaker Preston Taylor had purchased land for Greenwood Cemetery and Park by 1905 to serve the African American community of Nashville for proper burial and a space for recreation free of racial restrictions. A.G. Gaston ran a funeral home and insurance business in Alabama that helped fund the modern civil rights movement and bail Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail.

A.N. Johnson Undertaking Co. advertisement in the Nashville Globe, December 21, 1917. The ad emphasizes the growing to need to have all the goods and services under one roof. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A.N. Johnson Undertaking Co. advertisement in the Nashville Globe, December 21, 1917. The ad emphasizes the growing need to have all the goods and services under one roof. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I was able to start identifying and assessing historic African American funeral homes in Tennessee through other projects with the CHP during the school year. I began to understand that these buildings were critical anchors in the community, just like the social, economic, and political leadership of their owners. Funeral homes were typically located near churches (historic centers of the black community), along the border with the white community, and served as hubs of community activity.

1924 Sanborn Map of Murfreesboro, depicting the original location of Scales & Sons Funeral Home (fourth building up from the bottom left).

1924 Sanborn Map of Murfreesboro, depicting the original location of Scales & Sons Funeral Home (fourth building up from the bottom left).

Just down the road from the CHP in Murfreesboro is Scales & Sons Funeral Home, founded by Preston H. Scales in 1916 in the African American business district on South Maple Street off the square. These businesses were physical liaisons with the white-dominated square. Scales & Sons soon moved to East State Street and became a center of the growing African American neighborhood southeast of the square. Preston’s son, Robert, ran the business from this location and later became the city’s first African American city councilman.

Front facade of the current Scales & Sons Funeral Home on East State Street.

Front facade of the current Scales & Sons Funeral Home on East State Street in Murfreesboro.

While working on an African American heritage driving tour in Maury County, I connected with Mrs. Jo Ann McClellan of the Maury County African American Heritage Society. I discovered that there are currently four African American-owned funeral homes in the county. Another, Morton & Sons, is no longer in business but has a particularly interesting past. James M. Morton founded Morton & Sons Funeral Home in 1891 and quickly became a pillar of the community. The business was strategically located next to the First Baptist Church and a congregation full of possible customers. The original building, which mostly remains today, also served as a rallying point for African Americans during the 1946 Columbia race riot.

Left, Mrs. A.J. Morton, Funeral Director and Embalmer (Courtesy of Maury County Archives); right, the Morton & Sons funeral home went out of business in the mid-1990s., and the building was vacant in 2014.

Left, Mrs. A.J. Morton, Funeral Director and Embalmer (Courtesy of Maury County Archives); right, the Morton & Sons funeral home went out of business in the mid-1990s, and the building was vacant in 2014.

V.K. Ryan & Sons Funeral Home is another important Columbia institution, which has served as a hub of social and economic activity since 1938. The Ryan family lived upstairs well into the 1960s, while the first floor served as a space for the funeral business and a gathering place for a local fraternal lodge. The Ryans owned a filling station to the left of the house, where they also operated a café, barber shop, and cab company. The concentration of businesses, which would have doubled as places of daily social interaction, reveals the restrictive racial space in Columbia and the solidarity cultivated by African Americans in physically separate locations.

V.K. Ryan & Sons has remained in the same building since 1939.

V.K. Ryan & Sons has remained in the same building since 1939.

Through my work I have gained a huge respect for African American funeral professionals as men and women who answered the call for both the living and dead members of their communities. Many African American funeral homes across the United States remain in the family, with some businesses spanning over a century. Large international funeral companies and the declining racial divide that once guaranteed a separate customer base have led to the decline of many of these businesses. Funeral homes are often on the margins of preservationists’ minds because they are easily overlooked buildings that have become a natural part of our built environment. Demolition has already begun taking these invaluable historic resources and business anchors of African American communities.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be making my way around Tennessee to capture images of these buildings and connect with business owners and community members. I can be contacted via e-mail at brm4m@mtmail.mtsu.edu if you have any information regarding African American funeral homes in Tennessee or wish to find out more.

See Also:

Historian Suzanne Smith talks about her book To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (2010), which traces the importance of death and freedom in African American culture.

Homegoings, a PBS documentary.

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Historic Preservation in Italy and the United States

By Blake Cantrell, Intern

Hello, everyone! My name is Blake Cantrell, and I’m at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) completing an internship for the month of June. I’m a Master’s student at the American University of Rome, where I’m studying sustainable cultural heritage. What is sustainable cultural heritage, you ask? Luckily, I can explain what it means! It’s the recognition that the past has left a legacy–both good and bad–and the understanding that if that legacy is lost, it can’t be replaced. My course teaches us how to preserve these legacies indefinitely; they are people’s stories, and when they’re gone, that’s the end. It’s very similar to the work going on at the CHP here at MTSU.

For decades, arguably even centuries, “cultural heritage” has meant grand homes, palaces, castles, and other monuments of centuries past. If it took years to build and was made from stone or brick, it was probably considered a sight worth seeing, a story worth knowing about. Nowadays, the definition of heritage is expanding far beyond these elite structures to include the stories of people who have been left out of the grand histories.

The palaces of the elite and ruling classes are considered cultural heritage and are on most tourists’ “can’t miss” lists. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Courtesy of Norbert Nagel, Wikimedia Commons.

The palaces of the elite and ruling classes are considered cultural heritage and are on most tourists’ “can’t miss” lists. Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Courtesy of Norbert Nagel, Wikimedia Commons.

These days, there’s an expanding interest in learning about less-well-known places and cultures, as evidenced by the growing number of people who are traveling internationally to non-traditional destinations like Africa, South America, and even former Soviet Bloc countries, looking for a great experience that’s easier on the pocketbook.

Different places have different histories that make up everything from the landscape to the social fabric. Living in Rome, I’ve been able to see firsthand the differences between the ways that Italians manage their heritage and the ways that Americans oversee theirs. One of the largest differences is monetary. Though America’s vaults aren’t brimming with extra cash to spend on preservation projects, there are a number of successful government programs that manage a great deal of our heritage. For instance, the National Park Service oversees both the natural landscapes of our national parks, as well as designated historic sites across the country.

Italy’s organizations are similar. Many cultural programs are also governmental, like Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Goods, Activities, and Tourism. Unlike Italy, the United States has no Ministry of Culture. The problem in Italy is that with the economic downturn, the Italians have drastically reduced funding for culture in spite of the fact that tourism is one of the country’s strongest economic drivers. Italian cultural administrators, known as Sovrintendente, are responsible only for safeguarding their sites, nothing more. As a result, many of Italy’s monumental and archaeological sites are left completely untouched. The shortage of government funds has led some Italian business leaders to take charge and personally fund restoration projects in Rome. Diego Della Valle, chairman of the Italian luxury fashion house Tod’s, personally donated 25 million euros to clean and restore the Colosseum. This is the largest privately funded project for heritage in Italy.

Inside the Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

All this cleaning and restoration isn’t making everyone happy. Fendi, another Italian luxury-goods brand, donated 2 million euros to restore the Trevi fountain. I’ve spoken to a tourist moved to tears not by the beauty of the Trevi, but from the distress of seeing the waterless fountain covered in scaffolding. Fendi has also funded the restoration of a much smaller and less-well-known project of four small fountains near the Quirinal Palace, the residence of the President of the Republic of Italy. These privately funded projects have been lifesavers for Italy’s cultural heritage during this time of economic austerity.

The Trevi Fountain under restoration. Courtesy of Cezar Suceveanu, Wikimedia.

The Trevi Fountain under restoration. Courtesy of Cezar Suceveanu, Wikimedia.

Beyond these high-profile ‘adoptions’ of cultural attractions in Italy, perhaps the most important difference between heritage management and interpretation in Rome and in the United States seems to be the depth of multi-layered histories told from different perspectives, which isn’t so common in Italy. Tourism in Italy seems to be more about ‘seeing’ than ‘understanding.’ Americans, especially those of us who visit Italy for the first time, step off the plane imagining Rome as the city we’ve seen on film, especially Gladiator, and are looking for an uninterruptedly cinematic cityscape.

For the tourist only spending a few days at most in the city, there is scarcely enough time to see the major attractions; forget about learning much about them. That has to be done on the visitor’s own time, beyond structured tours. Only by digging will you find something controversial, something unexpected.

How did it come to be this way? An essential aspect of Italian culture is showing “la bella figura,” or the beautiful figure, presenting only the best outwardly in appearance and behavior. Italy tries to do the same in its heritage by only showing the best and minimizing the parts that show “la brutta figura,” the ugly figure. America is now more willing to reflect on uncomfortable aspects of its history. For Italians, it’s still about showing the best face possible to the outside world and keeping the other bits out of sight and out of mind.

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When Slaves and Slaveholders Were Buried Together

By Dr. Stacey Graham, CHP Research Professor

One of the very first projects I tackled when I came to work for the Center for Historic Preservation in 2007 involved the Buckley Cemetery in rural West Tennessee. Sandra Arnold, a descendant of people once enslaved at the Buckley plantation, met me and then-fieldwork coordinator Elizabeth Moore Humphreys at the site, which is in Henderson County, near the Chester County line. Sandra then introduced us to Elsie Mae Harmon Frye, her great-aunt, whose parents are both buried in the cemetery. Mrs. Frye’s father, Ben Harmon, had been enslaved at the neighboring Harmon plantation and came to work at the Buckley plantation after the Civil War, where he married Ethel Buckley, whose parents were former slaves of the Buckleys. The story I heard from Mrs. Frye, and then from descendants of the white Buckleys, was of a place where blacks and whites lived in community (however unequal the relationships in that community may have been). The only site that documents this community today is the Buckley Cemetery.

The Buckley Cemetery faces west, with the burials following a traditional east-west orientation.

The Buckley Cemetery faces west, with the burials following a traditional east-west orientation.

The site is spectacularly located between a dry creek bed and a vast cotton field, at the edge of a dirt road. When you’re approaching the cemetery, you can see right away the stately tombstones of the white Buckleys, with the earliest dating to 1840. If you look further into the cemetery, you see another grouping of tombstones set back from the road. These are smaller and flatter, more in keeping with styles common to late-19th-/early- 20th-century African American cemeteries in Tennessee. This is where Ben and Ethel Harmon are buried, and, now, also Elsie Mae Frye (who lived to 101!). Between this section of the cemetery and the section with the more prominent markers, there is a middle ground, full of grave depressions. These are the slave burials, right next to the graves of the slaveholders.

Elsie Mae Harmon Frye has, since this photograph was taken, been laid to rest beside her parents, Ben and Ethel Buckley Harmon.

Elsie Mae Harmon Frye has, since this photograph was taken, been laid to rest beside her parents, Ben and Ethel Buckley Harmon.

This pattern of burial struck me as significant. Most slaves across the South were buried in separate slave cemeteries, which were located in marginal areas on plantations. However, once I began to look for cemeteries where blacks and whites were buried together before the end of slavery, I found that this practice was not at all uncommon. Many enslaved people were buried near the white residents of the plantation. Therefore, these cemeteries are not just private family graveyards for the white family members; rather, they are the burial grounds of a larger community of people who lived and worked on a plantation. That is why I call them plantation community cemeteries.

: About forty ground depressions mark the slave graves between the white family section and the post-emancipation black family area of the cemetery.

: About forty ground depressions mark the slave graves between the white family section and the post-emancipation black family area of the cemetery.

Through the economic system of slavery, blacks and whites were always interacting with each other. Even though free whites and enslaved African Americans couldn’t have been farther from each other in the social hierarchy, they nevertheless often lived and worked in close physical proximity. Whites and blacks sharing close physical proximity in death should actually come as no surprise. This closeness can be seen in certain burial arrangements, as in Buckley Cemetery where the slave graves are right beside those of the slaveholder burial places.

The slave graves mark the true center of the cemetery, with the post-emancipation black section on the far left and the pre- and post-Civil War white section on the right.

The slave graves mark the true center of the cemetery, with the post-emancipation black section on the far left and the pre- and post-Civil War white section on the right.

Today, descendants of both white and enslaved Buckleys take care of the cemetery of their ancestors. In the 2000s, a metal arch was installed in the center of the cemetery, emphasizing the belief that the unmarked slave graves and the distant post-emancipation black graves are just as much a part of the Buckley “family” as the markers for the white descendants. The cemetery holds special significance for Sandra Arnold, who was inspired by the story of her ancestors to found the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans, hosted by Fordham University.

If you’re interested in learning more about this type of cemetery, you can read my article, “Plantation Community Cemeteries: Reading Black and White Relationships in the Landscape,” which just came out in the journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, Markers XXX (2015). Also, if you know of a cemetery that might fit this type, please e-mail me, because I’d love to hear about it!

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Searching for Communities in Tennessee: Fort Cooper and Hortense

By Leigh Ann Gardner, Interpretive Specialist, Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area

On occasion at the Center for Historic Preservation (CHP), we find opportunities to hit the road and conduct field surveys of sites across the state. In the spring of 2014, Dr. Carroll Van West, graduate research assistant Torren Gatson, and I headed west from Murfreesboro in an attempt to locate two historic African American communities. We were following a lead from articles in the Nashville Globe about Hortense, a community in Dickson County, and hoping that remnants of the town remained. We also sought to document Fort Cooper, a Reconstruction-era African American community in rural Hickman County. After a few false turns (I do not possess the best navigational or spatial senses), we were able to find what remains of these two interesting communities.

Fort Cooper derives its name from a family that lived in the area between 1810 and 1815. It was not until after the Civil War that the area became the site of an African American settlement. The Columbia, Tennessee, Herald and Mail described the community in an 1877 article: “This valley was a dense forest until about five years ago, when a colony of negroes bought the land . . . They have erected very comfortable houses–very neat and tidy . . . .” A History of Hickman County, published in 1900 and written by W. Jerome Spence and David Spence, also included information about the community, naming Nathan George, a former slave of Hezekiah George, as the founder.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) map showing the approximate location of Fort Cooper.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) map showing the approximate location of Fort Cooper.

Former slave Nathan George went on to donate land for a log church and a school. Originally known as George’s Chapel Church of Christ, Fort Cooper Church of Christ is still in existence. The log school no longer stands on the landscape, replaced in the twentieth century by a building clearly derived from the Common School Plans of the Rosenwald Fund. We know that a school existed in the community as early as 1913 because an article in the Nashville Globe on December 5, 1913, described the school’s Thanksgiving services and named the principal of the school as Prof. W.S. Walker. Although classes have not been held in the school for decades, the building remains, with two classrooms and a basement that likely housed a cafeteria. An intriguing feature of the school is that a small community burial ground, known as the Fort Cooper Training School Cemetery, is located at the school. Most of marked burials date from later in the twentieth century.

The community also has a second cemetery, located at the top of a hill near the Fort Cooper Church of Christ. This cemetery is abandoned and largely overgrown. However, yucca plants (often associated with African American burials) and buttercups surround several of the gravesites. In addition to the marked burials, there are a number of unmarked depressions indicating burial locations.

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I first learned about Hortense while researching African American lodges in the Nashville Globe. The November 25, 1910, issue ran an article about the community on the first page, with a headline that read, “Hortense: A Thriving Negro Settlement in Dickson County.” The article described the town as “a wealthy Negro settlement . . . The population in the immediate vicinity is entirely colored, who own their own farms.” Situated on the Clarksville Mineral Branch of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, Hortense in 1910 consisted of one church, a school, a Masonic hall under construction, and a general store.

Looking more deeply, I found a reference to the town in John Baker’s The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation (2009). (If you have not read Baker’s riveting work about tracing his ancestors who were enslaved on the large Wessyngton Plantation in Robertson County, I highly recommend it.) Members of Baker’s family were early settlers of Hortense, which drew many residents from Montgomery County. After reading several articles in the Globe and Baker’s account, I wanted to see what remained of this once-thriving community.

USGS map showing the approximate location of Hortense.

USGS map showing the approximate location of Hortense.

What remains is very little. The train depot, the school, the store, and the Masonic Hall no longer exist on the landscape. A thesis written by Beatrice Pendergrass in 1951 described the school and community: “This community was once thickly populated with Negroes, but in recent years has become sparsely settled. As a result, this school was consolidated in 1945.” All we found in the spring of 2014 was a church and a cemetery.

Mount Olive Hortense Church, a concrete block building with a gable front and small steeple, remains. The congregation dates to at least 1911, when it hosted a cake-cutting contest. The cemetery lies behind the church and is well-maintained. A number of veterans, particularly individuals who served in World War I, are buried there. One grave I saw belonged to Boyd Washington, a son of Foster Washington, whom Baker described as moving to Dickson County in 1910.

Despite some of the mishaps that took place that day, such as when I forgot the location of Fort Cooper School in relation to the church or when we had to hike up a steep hill to Fort Cooper Cemetery in order to get a cell signal, it was an excellent day of field work. It reinforced the importance of documenting these communities. Many of these rural African American communities are quickly vanishing, with only sparse documentary evidence surviving. Seeing the churches, cemeteries, schools, and geography of these once-vibrant places gives us a better understanding of the communities themselves.

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See Also:

“Hortense: A Thriving Negro Settlement in Dickson County,” Nashville Globe, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86064259/1910-11-25/ed-1/seq-1/

“Maury Anglers Angling in Hickman County,” Herald and Mail (Columbia, TN), http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053406/1877-04-27/ed-1/seq-3/

A History of Hickman County, Tennessee (available on Google Books), https://books.google.com/books?id=sIE7AQAAMAAJ&dq=history%20of%20hickman%20county&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q=history%20of%20hickman%20county&f=false

John F. Baker, Jr., The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation (2009).

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Riverside Mill Village, Part 2: Baseball and Other Memories

By Lydia Simpson, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

For many years, textile-league baseball played an important role in the lives of southern mill workers. The Rome, Georgia, rayon mill at Riverside, owned by the Tubize-Chatillon Corporation until it was purchased by Celanese after World War II, had its own baseball field with covered wooden grandstands and, after 1938, lights for night games. The newspapers regularly reported on textile-league games, and fans filled the stands to see their favorite players and co-workers beat the other mill teams.

The Tubize Rayons.  Jay Gould Scrapbook (c. 1935), courtesy of Russell McClanahan.

The Tubize Rayons. From a Jay Gould scrapbook (c. 1935), courtesy of Russell McClanahan.

Recently, while working in the archival reading room at the Rome Area History Museum, which is my current base of operations for research, the museum archivist, Russell McClanahan, informed me that he was in possession of a scrapbook kept by a late Tubize Rayons baseball enthusiast, Jay Gould. After a brief conversation with Mr. McClanahan, I learned that his father had been recruited from Nashville to play baseball for Tubize in 1939 after getting discovered by Harry Boss. Boss was an All-American centerfielder for Vanderbilt (Class of 1939) and helped the Tubize Rayons win semi-pro championship titles during the summers of 1938, 1939, and 1940.

From Jay Gould Scrapbook (c. 1935), courtesy of Russell McClanahan.

From a Jay Gould scrapbook (c. 1935), courtesy of Russell McClanahan.

Mr. McClanahan is unsure how the scrapbook came to be in his family’s possession. It contains news clippings and photographs from the mid-1930s, several years before his father went to play for the team. McClanahan has graciously agreed to let me scan and use the materials in the scrapbook, and he hopes that other scrapbooks of Mr. Gould’s (of which he believes there were many) might surface as a result. All of my scans will become part of the Middle Tennessee State University Walker Library’s digital collections and shared with the Rome Area History Museum.

My current dissertation research endeavors in Rome owe a great deal to my working relationship with the staff of the Rome Area History Museum, who have kindly allowed me to take over their reading room on weekdays. I can be found there midday from Wednesday to Friday unless the space is otherwise engaged. I am seeking help from the community to tell the story of the Tubize/Celanese mill and village. Topics I would like to cover include, but are not limited to, the introduction of multi-national high-tech industry into southern Appalachia, the participation of local artisans in shaping the landscape, the experience of race in the mill-village landscape, the lives of commuters in the mid-twentieth century, and the continuation of the Riverside village as a vital part of the Rome-area community in the twenty-first century.

Aerial photograph showing baseball stadium in upper right.  From Jay Gould Scrapbook (c. 1935), courtesy of Russell McClanahan.

Aerial photograph showing baseball stadium in upper right. From the C.J. Wyatt Collection, Rome Area History Museum.

Though the memories of a community’s elders are crucial to any local-history project, later generations currently residing in the village are encouraged to share their experiences as well, regardless of prior connections to the community. Additionally, my project is not limited to those who resided in the village or worked at the rayon mill; I would also like to hear from the trash collectors, maids, laundresses, and landscape workers and their families. Riverside was historically a segregated landscape, and still is to a large degree, but it has never been a monochromatic one, and there are many voices whose stories have yet to be told.

In addition to stories and oral histories, I am collecting images of the mill landscape and worker housing, not just within the mill village but throughout the area. Photos that convey the experience of mill-worker life, from janitors and maintenance workers through administrators, as well as changes to the village and mill complex through time, company pamphlets and letters, and all things related to industrialization in Rome are welcome.

From Jay Gould Scrapbook (c. 1935), courtesy of Russell McClanahan.

From a Jay Gould scrapbook (c. 1935), courtesy of Russell McClanahan.

I am currently available in the Rome Area History Museum’s reading room from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. most Fridays. During the Celanese Village Kids reunion at Ridge Ferry Park on June 6th, 2015, I will be setting up at the E.C.O. Center at the park for interviews and image-scanning. I can be contacted by email at CelaneseHistory@gmail.com, or you can leave a message for me with the museum at 706-235-8051. Anyone who would like to participate but cannot make it to the museum for any reason is encouraged to contact me for alternative arrangements. I am happy to make house calls to anyone living within about a three-hour driving distance of Rome.

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What Makes Historic Hotels Historic? For One, “History Shrines” of Memorabilia

By Ginna Foster Cannon, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

For my professional residency, I am putting together a “white paper” on National Register-listed hotels and inns across the state for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. (A residency is a hands-on semester that is part of the requirements for the Ph.D. in Public History at MTSU). This document will address the current status of the properties and assess their potential as heritage assets. In addition to becoming a chapter of my dissertation (tentatively titled “What Makes Historic Hotels Historic? National Register-Listed Hotels in Tennessee and Why They Matter”), the white paper has afforded me the opportunity to collect primary-source research material that will complement archival and secondary sources. To date, I have done preliminary field work at thirty of the thirty-one properties (to see an assemblage of the hostelries, please read the post “Reflections on Historic Hotels in Tennessee” on my personal blog).

National Register of Historic Places plaque at the Old Deery Inn in Blountville.

National Register of Historic Places plaque at the Old Deery Inn in Blountville.

What are the criteria that make historic hotels historic? For starters, they publicly acknowledge their historic status. Historic hotels, like other National Register-listed properties, often display plaques commemorating their designation. The plaques are purely ornamental–they are paid for and designed by the properties’ owners. The National Park Service, which administers the National Register program, does not require plaques but provides sample wording for properties that want them.

Historic hotels have a distinct advantage over many other types of historic sites in acknowledging their historic status–material culture that is easy to display and of interest to a wide variety of people. This material culture is often assembled in what I, in a tongue- in-cheek manner, refer to as “history shrines.” Common elements are old photographs, postcards, menus, keys, silverware, and china. Some displays also include newspaper articles, music-related memorabilia, and awards for historic preservation.

Regardless of the size of the display, the cost to put it together, or how centrally it is located, all of these “shrines” serve important purposes beyond the “cool” factor. They make history tangible and instantly accessible to hotel patrons, and they establish a sense of place. Hotels’ pasts are uniquely their own and cannot be duplicated, a distinct advantage for historic hotels within the competitive travel industry. The material culture both pays tribute to the past and provides a bridge between the past and the present.

In the slideshow below, you can view a sampling of “history shrines” that I have discovered in historic hotels across Tennessee. Which is your favorite?

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Change Through the Camera Lens

By Joey Bryan, CHP Graduate Research Assistant

As I discussed briefly in my last blog post, “Chuggin’ Right Along,” I helped create interpretive panels explaining the transportation history of Smyrna, Tennessee, for future display in the city’s recently renovated train depot. In addition to writing a history of the depot, I had to locate images that illustrated the panel text. I had previous experience in researching images based on my involvement with the Tennessee Civil War Trails program that works with communities throughout Tennessee to erect interpretive wayside markers. The Smyrna project, however, gave me a unique perspective on the power of photography in the preservation field.

My search took me to no less than four physical and online photograph repositories, as I sifted through hundreds of images to locate appropriate pieces to fit the text of the various panels. The Walter King Hoover Papers housed at the Albert Gore, Sr., Research Center gave me a plethora of pictures that chronicled the history of Smyrna from the early twentieth century through the 1970s. I found even more historic images at the Rutherford County Archives. Larger repositories, like the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Library of Congress, provided me with the final historic and representational images I needed for the exhibition.

Downtown Smyrna, ca. 1930s.

Downtown Smyrna, ca. 1930s.

Each picture tells a story, but all of them together tell a novel about the town of Smyrna and its people as they evolved together during the twentieth century. By looking at the images you can see the railroad’s vital role as the town’s commercial and social lifeline. Conversely, the images also show early automobiles parked on muddy roads, foreshadowing the demise of the railroad and the eventual construction of the Nissan plant. The early pictures of Sky Harbor Airport, with biplanes and runways in the middle of fields, provide a great comparison to the more modern Sewart Air Force Base, with its fleet of massive C-130 planes and campus of asphalt and barracks.

Comparison of Sky Harbor Airport (1923), left, and Sewart Air Force Base (1960), right.

Comparison of Sky Harbor Airport (1923), left, and Sewart Air Force Base (1960), right.

Images also show how the very buildings that lined Front and Lowry streets changed with the needs of the people. I became infatuated with comparing images from various decades, trying to decipher which buildings had been torn down, which had changed, and when these changes had taken place. It was interesting to note that it was when passenger train service ended in 1971, and the Smyrna depot ceased serving as a gathering place, that most of these changes happened in the historic downtown area. The growing networks of highways naturally drove commerce away from downtown Smyrna over to I-24 and along Sam Ridley Parkway.

The rehabilitation of the Smyrna Depot is part of a larger effort to revitalize Smyrna’s downtown as a bevy of social and economic activity for locals and tourists. I previously wrote about how Smyrna’s citizens should be lauded for their commitment to preserving their railroad heritage. After working on this project, however, this commendation should be extended to the city’s foresight in using its history to enhance its future. So, for the sake of future historians and preservationists, keep taking pictures.

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