Black Bottom

Black Bottom was notable as a Negro neighborhood in downtown Nashville until the 1950s. The area was nicknamed “Black Bottom” because of periodic river floods that left muddy residue on the streets.

This area existed since 1832 as the Sixth Ward. On Nashville maps, the Sixth Ward had Broad Street as the north boundary and stretched from Summer Street (Fifth Avenue North) east to the Cumberland River. Proximity to the river suited workers engaging the river trade, Irishmen working on bridges, and Negroes working boats. Black Bottom attracted many houses of prostitution, gambling joints, and saloons.

Through the 1850s, Black Bottom served as a settlement of cheap houses for poor white immigrants who native Nashvillians held under suspicion and ethnic prejudice. Abutting the Sixth Ward was the Fifth Ward, where slaves of wealthy families resided and worked as artisans, cooks, servants, valets, and laborers. There, Black Bottom residents also could find menial employment. Many of the Irish, Germans, Jews, Scots, and other European immigrants often had to take jobs similar to slave occupations and compete for semi-skilled or skilled jobs held by the city’s free Negroes (22 percent of the black population). European immigrants, however, quickly claimed their white status and abhorred competition from the “blacks.” Such Negrophobia helped cause the Nashville race riot of December 1856.

After the Union army occupied the city in 1862, there was a great influx of fugitive slaves, causing the Negro population to triple, soon totaling nearly 30 percent of the city’s people. The army employed thousands of Negroes to build Fort Negley on St. Cloud Hill, overlooking the south edge of the city (Black Bottom); and in 1864, near the fort, the army settled contraband camp residents brought from the south-middle Tennessee camps. Northern missionaries helped the army to maintain contraband camps in East Nashville (Edgefield), North Nashville on Church Street, and Edgehill (South Nashville).

One of Nashville’s five Negro city councilmen, Randal Brown, represented the Sixth Ward. Upon leaving office, Brown said, “My heart bleeds for my people” because of their poor conditions (Nashville Republican Banner [September 11, 1869]). The death rate for Negroes per one thousand persons from diseases was nearly twice that for white Nashvillians. Black Bottom homes were heated by coal stoves and fireplaces that left a thick haze of black soot covering everything. There was inadequate ventilation, dusty streets, and a proliferation of outdoor toilet facilities. Many residents were illiterate, and a quarter of their children often did not regularly attend the city’s public schools. Residents held menial jobs, and unemployment was twice as high for blacks. By 1870, the Sixth Ward had 1,844 whites and 1,649 Negroes all crowded into 741 dwellings. Some residents probably joined the Black Exodus (1869-81) to Kansas, which Councilman Brown, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, and other black Nashville leaders supported.

Black Bottom was transformed in the 1880s, particularly at the advent of the Age of Jim Crow (de jure segregation). The black population reached the tipping point, threatening to exceed the white population. Many whites fled Black Bottom not only because of Negrophobia, but because Americans classified as “white” had access to better wages, wealth, and housing. Also, the development of electric streetcar lines after 1888 allowed wealthy downtown families to move to the “streetcar suburbs.” Landlords populated Black Bottom with cheap but profitable tenement houses. Wilbur F. Cash, in The Mind of the South (1941), agrees that a “Black Bottom,” with muddy streets, substandard housing, no indoor toilets, crowded Negroes, and unsightly poverty was not atypical in New South cities.

Not until the 1880-90s did the plantation system begin to disintegrate, sending a flood of Negroes into town. By 1880, Nashville had 43,350 people, nearly 40 percent black. By 1890, 73.4 percent of Davidson County’s Negroes resided in Nashville. Crowded, racially oppressed, and impoverished southern conditions forced millions of Negroes and whites to take part in the Great Migration (1890-1960) to the industrial North. By 1910, Nashville had 36,523 (36 percent) blacks. By 1930, 43,200 Negroes made up 28.5 percent of Nashville’s people, and this percentage nearly held steady for the next seventy years.

Black Bottom included working- and middle-class families. The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Saint Paul (1874-), was built at the northwest corner of Franklin and Fourth Avenue North, where the building yet stands. In 1883, the city built Pearl School (first through eighth grades) on Fifth Avenue North, although some elite-class blacks complained the school was too small and located in “Black Bottom and on the border of Hell’s Half Acre.” Don Doyle, in Nashville in the New South 1880-1930 (1985) said, “By the 1880s a sprawling area filled with shacks and lean-tos spread up the western and northern slopes of Capitol Hill known as ‘Hell’s Half Acre;’ it rivaled Black Bottom for its vice, epidemics, and desperate poverty.” In 1887, the city authorized high-school classes (ninth through eleventh grades) offered in the Meigs Colored School in East Nashville and transferred them to Pearl School in 1897. In 1909, Negro progressives lobbied the city to clean up Black Bottom. The city built a new Pearl High School near Fisk in 1915. Over four hundred students graduated from Pearl High School when it was located in Black Bottom.

Black Bottom and surrounding Negro areas were lively and culturally rich. There was a bottling company, clothing store, ice cream factory, nearby city market on Second Avenue, an iron foundry on the river, black-owned businesses, doctors’ offices, and funeral homes. Two blocks to the south of Black Bottom were professional black enterprises: Meharry Medical College on First Avenue South, Mercy Hospital, Millie Hale Hospital, and Hubbard Hospital built in 1912. The famous Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston likely frequented the streets of Black Bottom after moving to Nashville around 1912 to live with her brother John Hurston, who was a student and 1915 graduate at Meharry Medical College. Hurston likely got some of her ideas of black urban life emerging in soulful and colorful ways through her weekend strolls through Black Bottom. The popular Greenwood Park (1905-53) was just a nickel streetcar ride east of Black Bottom at Spence Lane and Lebanon Road.

Black Bottom began to fade during the Great Depression (1929-39). Half of Negro workers were unemployed. Some family stoves burned acid-filled batteries salvaged in nearby junkyards. The New Deal (1933-39) programs placed no investment in Black Bottom but did finance relief projects in North Nashville: Pearl High School building, Andrew Jackson Housing Project, recreational facilities at Tennessee A.&I. State College. Black Bottom residents were among the million Negroes who served in American military forces during World War II (1942-45). After the war, however, federal low-income housing projects were not built in Black Bottom, but sprung up south, east, and north of the area. Massive urban renewal projects (1948-72) forced historic black businesses and churches out of downtown Nashville. Soon, Black Bottom and Hell’s Half Acre succumbed to wrecking balls, bulldozers, new highways, broader avenues, redevelopment projects, and commercial zoning policies.

Suggested Reading

J. F. Blumstein and B. Walter, eds., Growing Metropolis: Aspects of Development in Nashville (1975); Anita S. Goodstein, Nashville 1780-1860: From Frontier to City (1989); B. L. Lovett, The African American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930: Elites and Dilemmas (1999); Nashville Colored Directory (1925); Nashville City Directory (1855-1955); J. Summerville, “The City and the Slums: Black Bottom in the Development of South Nashville,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 40 (1981)

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  • Article Title Black Bottom
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018