In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, North Nashville was the undisputed center of the city’s African-American population. During this time, black Nashvillians lived in various districts throughout the north side — including Buena Vista, Elizabeth Park, Fisk-Osage, Hadley/Washington, Hope Gardens and Salemtown. Many shopped and dined at vibrant spots that peppered a bustling Jefferson Street. And within that storied street’s numerous live music venues, they moved and grooved to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, Ray Charles and Etta James, among scores more.
Academic anchors Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University lent a significant prestige to historic North Nashville, while countless black churches offered rock-solid stability and continuity.
Although downtown’s eastern and southern fringes were — and remain — home to black residents, North Nashville was for many years considered the epicenter of the African-American community.
“When I was growing up, most blacks lived in certain communities,” said Frank Harrison, a lifelong Nashvillian who came of age in the 1960s and who serves the Metro Council’s majority-black District 2.
In those days, of course, blacks lived in North Nashville because they were cordoned off there, the result of institutional racism, cultural considerations and the limits of affordable housing. No doubt, the “black Nashville” of Frank Harrison’s youth is vastly different today.
In fact, an interesting dynamic is unfolding there. Based on sheer population numbers, North Nashville is no longer the city’s center of African-American influence. Though many north side neighborhoods remain predominantly black, other parts of the city have gained sizable African-American populations. This shift in demographics began in the 1980s, but accelerated dramatically from 2000 to 2010, as recent U.S. Census Bureau numbers show.
For example, the general Hermitage and Madison areas now have pockets that are at least 25 percent black. Bellevue has added a noticeable African-American population. The same is true for the Donelson/Elm Hill/Airport area.
But suburban southeast Davidson County — which locals often broadly refer to as Antioch — is experiencing a flood of African-American residents.
The county’s southeast region includes 11 suburban council districts. According to 2010 Census material and the new Metro Planning map, all 11— Districts 4, 13, 16, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32 and 33 — are now at least 13 percent African-American. Many of these districts have clusters with black populations of 50 percent or higher. Some offer African-American populations of 75 percent or more.
Overall, District 32 leads the way with a 47 percent black population.
In contrast, in 2000 the same council districts offered no clusters more than 50 percent African-American. Additionally, only nine districts in that part of the county had black populations of about 13 percent or more. District 33 had the highest percentage in 2000, with 28.3 percent.
Those interviewed for this article said the dynamic is rather easily explained: Today’s black Nashvillians have far more housing options than in years past. In addition, many have moved to the city from other parts of the country and don’t have the personal and family history that would attach them to North Nashville.
Erica Gilmore, who represents District 19 on the Metro Council, said historic North Nashville remains attractive to many but is somewhat limited.
“Persons that move into the area are attracted to accessibility, night life, art and culture,” Gilmore said. “If these are not the objectives for a family, then it might be a more difficult sale for someone who is looking for the more conservative quality of life.”
Gilmore said North Nashville is experiencing a rebirth of sorts, with many of its old homes requiring renovation.
“A lot of families want something that is move-in ready,” she said. “Moving into the North Nashville area takes elbow grease, but it is well worth it. For some families, there is still a strong appeal to jump in the SUV and drive to the store and mall. All of the houses [in the suburbs] are perfectly the same — along with the lawn.
“And that is not how the area we call North Nashville works,” she added.
Nick Lindeman, the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s demographer and economic and systems data analyst, said that although the number of North Nashville households and housing units have increased from 2000 to today, the general area (which extends past traditional black neighborhoods) saw a population decrease of about 4 percent due to a drop in the number of people per household size — a countywide trend.
Though census data clearly show that many black Nashvillians now live throughout Davidson County, gauging the locations of African-American-owned businesses is difficult.
Valisa Thompson, president of the North Nashville-based Nashville Black Chamber of Commerce, said she does not have numbers as to how many black-owned businesses are located in southeast Davidson County.
“About 50 percent of chamber members are based in North Nashville,” Thompson said. “A lot of the businesses with the black chamber are already established, so I don’t hear a lot about businesses that are just starting.”
Although many of Davidson County’s 35 council districts grew at modest rates from 2000 to 2010, the city’s historically African-American districts in urban North Nashville and East Nashville added population at less significant rates — and some even lost.
For example, what had been District 1 grew only 1.18 percent; District 2, 3.72 percent; and District 3, 9.66 percent. Each grew at a less noteworthy rate than the county population grew as a whole: nearly 10 percent. As well, District 5 saw an 8.34 percent drop in its population, while District 21 lost 13.3 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010.
The only traditionally black district to gain population at a rate higher than that of the overall county was Erica Gilmore’s District 19, which increased by 14.7 percent. But the majority of the district’s growth was fueled by higher-end multiunit apartment and condominium buildings, which are home — anecdotal evidence suggests — to a percentage of African-Americans far smaller than the county’s overall percentage (27) of blacks.
Sharon Hurt, executive director of Jefferson Street Merchants Partnership, said North Nashville remains home to the city’s greatest concentration of black civic icons and black-owned business.
When asked if, say, Antioch might one day be Davidson County’s epicenter of black commerce and culture, Hurt responded, “I would say it’s too farfetched to imagine.”
Frank Harrison said he is not concerned about the shifts in black population.
“The ramifications long-term is that we will possibly have a viable African-American community in Antioch, as well as North Nashville,” he said. “But I can see a coexistence. We’ll still have people who live in North Nashville.”