Nashville Conference on African-American History and Culture
For over thirty-five years, the Metropolitan Historical Commission and Tennessee State University have celebrated the contributions of African Americans to Nashville and Tennessee through the Nashville Conference on African-American History and Culture. Each February, Nashvillians come together to honor these individuals through historical and cultural presentations by historians, artists, students, dramatists, musicians, genealogists, and others interested in the history of our city and state. The long-running series, Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee, a collection of almost two hundred short publications, makes the Conference research available to the public.
With the theme "A Panoramic View of the African American History of Nashville and Tennessee," the 2018 conference focused on a wide variety topics across the state. The morning session speakers included Dr. Jane Landers discussing the process of researching and preserving Nashville's early black history; Dr. Ashley Bouknight re-evaluating activism through black material culture; and Dr. Brandon R. Byrd examining the legacy of Toussaint L'Overture in Tennessee. During the afternoon session, Linda Wynn read Dr. Lews Baldwin's paper on reclaiming Martin Luther King, Jr. in the age of Trumpsim; Dr. Herbert Clark discussed the legacy of James Carroll Napier; and Dr. Cynthia Bond Hopson covered the impact of HBCU-educated African Americans in small rural communities. Following a musical performance by the Tennessee State University Meistersingers, Dr. K.T. Ewing ended the program on a high note with her presentation on the music of Alberta Hunter and Lil Hardin Armstrong. The poem Witness Walls was also performed by "Southern Word" poets Gray Bulla and Constance Bynum.
The Nashville Conference on African-American History and Culture was held on Friday, February 10, 2017, at the Avon Williams Campus of Tennessee State University. Speakers discussed various ways that interracial dialogue has contributed to our city and state in Nashville’s past, in the present, and continuing into the future. Speakers included Davidson County Historian Dr. Carole Bucy, noted professor Dr. Daniel Sharfstein, whose book The Invisible Line focuses on the ever-changing color line and how individuals and families have crossed that boundary. Dr. Ansley T. Erickson presented on her Nashville-based research that informed her new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and its Limits. Other presenters included Dr. Deidre Hill Butler focusing on the revitalization of the Bordeaux community following the 2010 flood, and Dr. Learotha Williams, Jr., examining early African-American women’s activism in Nashville. Back by popular demand, TSU’s Jazz Collegians returned to the stage, and Angela Yvonne Stockdale also performed. Students from St. John Neumann School in Knoxville screened their award-winning documentary, “Exploration of Tennessee’s Journey to Desegregate Schools and Struggles Encountered Along the Way,” from Tennessee History Day.
The Nashville Conference on African-American History and Culture was held on Friday, February 12, 2016, at the Avon Williams Campus of Tennessee State University. The 2016 conference provided an opportunity to celebrate Fisk University on its sesquicentennial, and to examine many of Fisk's contributions to Nashville, the state, and the nation. Professors from Fisk, Tennessee State University, and Belmont looked at a variety of Fisk professors and alumni throughout the years and their legacies in education, philosophy, history, international relations, and visual and performing arts. The Fisk Three Tenors and the Fisk Jubilee Singers honored attendees with special musical performances.
Held on Friday, February 13, 2015, the Nashville Conference on African-American History and Culture focused on unsung heroes in Tennessee's cultural history from slavery through the 20th century. The speakers included Belmont professor and noted author Dr. Sybril Bennett, and Tennessee State Historian Dr. Carroll Van West. Continuing the Conference’s long-standing commitment to honoring the contributions of African Americans to Nashville’s cultural scene, the Nashville Public Library’s Wishing Chair Productions staged “Anasazi the Spider,” in honor of the rich story-telling traditions of the African-American community.
New this year, the winning student documentaries from 2014’s Tennessee History Day competition were screened. Students from Memphis and Knoxville received honors for the best Tennessee projects in African-American History, sponsored by the Nashville Conference Committee, at the 2014 competition. These students were honored for their work, and their documentaries were screened at the conference.
History of the Conference
In 1981, a group of Nashville historians began discussing the possibility of holding an all-day conference for the purpose of presenting papers, projects, and activities related to local African-American culture and history. Although African Americans had been vital to the growth and development of Nashville, little information about their contributions was readily available to the public. The founding members of the planning committee -- Bobby L. Lovett (Tennessee State University), Lois C. McDougald (Tennessee State University), May Dean Coop Eberling (Metropolitan Historical Commission), and Linda T. Wynn (Tennessee Historical Commission) -- conceived the conference as a way of bringing these stories to light through an event that would have broad appeal for the community. Through their efforts, the annual Afro-American Culture and History Conference began on September 9, 1981.
Renamed the Conference on African-American History and Culture in 2003, the Conference has continued to bring together historians, educators, students, and other individuals interested in how African Americans shaped the history of Nashville and Tennessee. Speakers come from all walks of life and include family historians, church historians, and high school teachers as well as college and university professors and graduate students. Each year's program blends information and enrichment with cultural entertainment.
The Conference differs from traditional academic gatherings in that cultural entertainment and art have always figured prominently in the program. Integrating cultural expressions of black history has involved students as performers from a variety of college and high school ensembles like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the TSU Meistersingers, the Whites Creek High School Marching Band, and the Fisk University Stagecrafters. The Conference has also hosted professional entertainers of national acclaim, including the Princely Players and the Fairfield Four. Tennessee State University has always had a strong art program and through the efforts of several art professors and curators, the Conference has developed a special focus on visual arts. Many of the conference profiles and presentations have featured notable artists such as William Edmonson, Aaron Douglas, Frances Thompson, and Greg Ridley.
A primary aim of the conference is to encourage new research into local African-American history and make that research accessible to all. Over the past thirty years, almost 200 "Profiles of African Americans in Nashville and Tennessee" have been produced. Dr. Bobby L. Lovett and Linda T. Wynn edited a collection of 99 of these short publications for Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee, a bicentennial book project of the Conference published in 1996. Profiles and other research resources are available on the Tennessee State University library website: Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee.