JThrough the violence, uncertainty, and chaos of the 20th century, black women in North Nashville carried on. They took their children to school. They defended the right to vote and desegregation. They built schools and institutions, went to work and held rallies. They cared about others in countless ways and kept their community strong.
Now, a new art installation in Elizabeth Park aims to honor their contributions.
The project started in 2018 with Art Against Violence, an initiative of lawyer and author M. Simone Boyd (who contributed to the Stage). Art Against Violence aims to inspire North Nashville to “reject apathy, take strategic action, and combat violence with youth employment.” Boyd, with a grant from Metro Public Works and a partnership with the Maple Built woodworking apprenticeship program, employed youth from the community to create a wood mosaic of Curlie McGruder, organizer of the end of the Walk for freedom, suffrage activist and local NAACP president. She was also an advocate for the students who led the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. The mosaic has hung in Elizabeth Park since 2018.
This year, the installation has expanded to include an 18-month exhibition honoring four other black women from North Nashville: Nora Evelyn Ransom, Mary Louise Watson, Willie Mae Boddie and Juno Frankie Pierce. They and McGruder are five of many black women who have defined a community known not just for its headlines, but for its concern for others, Boyd says.
“As a writer, my job is to help change the negative narrative that I believe surrounds North Nashville,” Boyd says. “There is a lot of danger in one story – the North Nashville I live in is very different from the North Nashville I often see in the media. I live North Nashville as a place of love, care and community.
Boyd conceived the project while walking around the neighborhood with two friends. “We just walked around and talked about our experiences as black women,” she says. This march, says Boyd, “reinforced how, as our neighborhood changes, black women have contributed to this community, and we need to elevate their legacies and contributions.”
For the mosaics, Boyd first chose three women who changed Nashville’s political landscape. In addition to McGruder, this included Watson, a major figure in school desegregation whose daughters were two of the first 16 students to attend Nashville’s integrated schools. Amid bomb threats and intimidation, Watson led the desegregation effort with kindness and grace. “You have to keep teaching that’s the best way – to love and respect everyone,” Watson told NewsChannel 5 in 2009. “Not just one, but everyone.”
There is also a mosaic of Pierce, a suffragist and founder of the Tennessee Vocational School for Colored Girls in 1923. Politically savvy, Pierce fought for the right to vote to gain support for the school. Addressing the 1920 States Suffrage Convention at the Tennessee Capitol, she mentioned“What will black women do with the vote? We will support white women. … We only ask for one thing – a square deal. … We want recognition in all forms of this government. We want a public vocational school and a state child welfare department, and more space in public schools. But Black women were excluded from the 19th AmendmentPierce continued to defend the school, and the League of Women Voters of Tennessee successfully petitioned the General Assembly to pass a bill establishing it in 1921.
But beyond advocates and political leaders, there are women who nurture the fabric of a community in more private but equally important ways. This was the case for Ransom and Boddie, which Boyd discovered while talking to community members about their families. Ransom moved from Murfreesboro to North Nashville in the 1940s, raised 11 children, and worked at St. Thomas Hospital for more than 30 years. She never drove, but was very involved locally, serving as the lead usher at the 14th Avenue Baptist Church and running a social club, which held monthly gatherings.
Boddie (“Mama Boddie,” as she was often called) was equally active: she served as a cafeteria cashier at Nashville public schools, made popsicles for neighborhood kids during the summers, and trained “dozens” of local children. She lived on 14th Avenue for 45 years. “The highway was literally built in his street”, Boyd said. “Yet in the face of it all, she still cared about the neighborhood and loved the community.”
Women like Ransom and Boddie do not always appear in historical accounts; this makes them all the more important to recognize. In the face of a world of bomb threats, lynchings, riots and countless other adversities, their contributions are even more important.
“Keep in mind that between 1879 and 1960, thousands of black people were lynched in America,” Boyd says. “Yet these people like J. Frankie Pierce…what she was able to accomplish despite the racial violence and systemic terror that was happening at the time…that’s beyond me, and I think we should celebrate that.”
“These women found a way,” Boyd says. “When people were being lynched, their homes threatened, they found a way to build a community there. And that’s what we’ll do – we’ll find a way to keep Nashville loving, caring and connected, despite all the challenges. with which we are faced.
“I hope we uphold the legacy these women entrusted to us – that North Nashville continues to be a place where people care for those who have less.”