Nashville, Tennessee is known for its music history, but the city has played a much larger role in American history than you might think. The US Colored Troops fought heroically at the Battle of Nashville. The African American residents fought for equality with sit-ins and bus boycotts during the Civil Rights Movement. They contributed influences to American music and now-iconic dishes.
For a Black history tour of Nashville, seek out United Street Tours.
Civil Rights Room, Nashville Public Library
The Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room has interactive exhibits on the Civil Rights Movement and the city’s impact. With photos, books, and videos, it’s a great place for young people to learn about history.
Nashville has four historically black colleges and universities, including Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and American Baptist College. But it’s Fisk that is the most well-known. Founded in 1866, it was an early accredited university for African Americans.
John Lewis and Diane Nash, who later became Civil Rights icons, organized sit-ins with fellow Fisk students. The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang spirituals in the 1800s to raise funds for the school. They later gained acclaim while touring Europe, performing for Queen Victoria. In 2020, they won a Grammy.
The Aaron Douglas Gallery features works from the Harlem Renaissance painter, who later taught at Fisk. The art museum also includes pieces donated by Georgia O’Keefe, including those by Alfred Stieglitz, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Pablo Picasso. The campus also has a Carnegie Library designed by Moses McKissack, a Black builder whose company still exists.
Jefferson Street Sound Museum
Visitors to Nashville learn mostly about country music but the city’s impact is much wider. During the 1960s, it was home to rock legends like Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. Jefferson Street was a bustling Black business district where the likes of Etta James, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin performed.
But the racist demolition in the name of urban development shuttered these sacred spaces. The Jefferson Street Sound Museum opened in 2013 as a way of memorializing this period of music history that predated modern Music Row. There’s also a studio and production space.
Nashville Musicians Hall of Fame
The Musicians Hall of Fame covers the many musicians connected to the city, regardless of genre. Many of the honored are the session musicians that played backup for notable acts. Highlights of the collection include a guitar belonging to Jimi Hendrix plus the stage he performed on in Nashville.
Get your Nashville Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum Admission Ticket before you go.
National Museum of African American Music
The story of African Americans impact in Nashville music has often been overlooked, especially in the often-segregated early shows at the Ryman Auditorium. The National Museum of African American Music highlights the significant role the Black community played in what we consider to be American music.
While the museum is in the Music City, known for its ties to country music, it actually spans all genres. The areas are broken down into these styles of music, including gospel, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, rap, and rock. Highlights include Aretha Franklin’s dresses, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.
Get your National Museum of African American Music Nashville Admission Ticket before you go.
Prince’s Hot Chicken
Hot chicken is considered to be one of the essential eats for visitors to Nashville and if there’s one place you must have it, it’s Prince’s Hot Chicken. The legend goes that the spicy fried chicken was a punishment for a cheating husband, but it’s now enjoyed all over town in various incarnations. They serve the chicken in varying spice levels and different parts of the chicken with sides like potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans.
For more black-owned businesses in Nashville, see this guide from Visit Music City.
The original Woolworth’s in Nashville was home to a lunch counter that was the site of a 1960 sit-in. It was here that John Lewis was first arrested during a peaceful protest. Today, the building has been restored as Woolworth on 5th, a restaurant and live music venue. The menu includes throwback dishes like Hot Brown sandwiches.