by Alex Howard
“The North Nashville Heritage Project taught me that the old lady who fried chicken at the church was just as important as the lawyers who bailed the students who got arrested out of jail,” said Dr. Learotha Williams, referencing the Nashville sit-ins of 1960.
Dr. Williams started the North Nashville Heritage Project in 2010, along with students in his Introduction to Public History course at Tennessee State University. The project seeks to preserve the heritage of North Nashville, a community that has been an epicenter for Black business, culture, and education since the end of the Civil War. The North Nashville Heritage Project started when students asked Dr. Williams questions that he “quite honestly didn’t have an answer to.” His students were interested in the people that lived in the peripheries of North Nashville, beyond its historic Jefferson Street. Dr. Williams realized that “these people had stories that were important” and had not been documented. So Dr. Williams had his students engage in oral histories, encouraging them to “look where people haven’t been looking, ask the questions that haven’t been asked.”
Dr. Williams says the North Nashville Heritage Project “started off as something simple but it has grown into something that was completely unanticipated.” One of these unanticipated results is that “it connected groups that were previously working out there in the wilderness doing their own thing. Now they know about each other. In places where one group is struggling, another may have expertise to share.” One such group is a group of women church historians working to publish and preserve the histories of North Nashville’s Black churches. Dr. Williams says the knowledge and material the church historians have collected is extremely valuable because “the churches were often times the repositories of this community’s history.”
The North Nashville Heritage Project is committed to telling the history of North Nashville through the voices of people who have traditionally been ignored and marginalized. Dr. Williams especially encourages us to “pay attention to Black women in Nashville because we have not done right by them. Not by a long shot.” Intentional community outreach, like to North Nashville’s church historians, is essential to engaging and documenting marginalized voices in Dr. Williams’s work.
According to Dr. Williams, the most effective method of outreach is cultivating long term, mutually beneficial relationships in the community. This was especially important for him to do as he is not native to Nashville. To start building these relationships, Dr. Williams says it’s all about “getting to know people, figuring out their likes and dislikes, hanging out in the same places as them.” Most importantly, Dr. Williams argues that developing strong relationships requires us to listen to the communities we are engaging – “Listen to what they need and what they want to do. They might have a dream. You can help them pull that off.” If possible, Dr. Williams says it is important to make these relationships a permanent feature of our institutions.
Dr. Williams says it took five years of being in academia for him to start feeling free to do the kind of work he is really passionate about. Dr. Williams is originally from Florida and earned his PhD in African American History from Florida State University. He worked as a Historic Sites Specialist for the State of Florida and served as a professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia where he started an African American Studies program. When he started in his discipline, Dr. Williams had to advocate for academia to embrace conducting oral histories and working with heritage societies as “real history.” He argues that practicing history in this way is difficult because “you have to learn everything that the ‘traditional’ historians know but you also have to learn to speak to folks who aren’t usually in the audience and more importantly listen to people who have traditionally been ignored.” When Dr. Williams came to Tennessee State University in 2009, he was able to engage at this level of historical practice through the North Nashville Heritage Project which he says “has made me a better historian and a better teacher.”