Celebrate the History of African American Tennesseans with our Library
The woman raised her right hand, the bright purple of her jacket standing out brilliantly in the sea of black suits where she stood. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and Latina woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, asked the woman to repeat after her. The woman spoke the Oath of Office, charging her to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Her voice was strong and unwavering as she affirmed that she would well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which she was about to enter, “...so help me God.”
On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, with those words spoken, Kamala Devi Harris became the 49th Vice President of the United States — the first woman, and only the second person of color to do so.
We all have cause to celebrate Vice President Harris’s victory. As the first woman, the first African American, and the first Asian American to hold the second highest office in our country, her achievements serve as an inspiration to all women and girls, especially those of color, demonstrating that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals.
But it’s important to remember that Vice President Harris didn’t get here on her own. It took the hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice of many people — across nearly 232 years — to pave the way to that victory. And many of them made their mark right here in Nashville.
Today, the team at Nashville Public Library (NPL) celebrates the growing legacy of Vice President Harris, and all African Americans, by sharing the history of some of our most prominent and revered Black Nashvillians.
If there’s anyone in Nashville’s history who needs no introduction, it’s John Lewis. From student activist to United States senator to celebrated author, Lewis led a life dedicated to enriching the lives of not only African Americans, but all humankind.
Born on February 21, 1940 near Troy, Alabama, Lewis came to Nashville after being denied admission to Troy University because of racial discrimination. As a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary, Lewis played a prominent role in the Nashville Student Movement, organizing numerous, non-violent lunch counter sit-ins and marches to rally support for desegregation in Nashville. Arrested multiple times for his actions, Lewis would later describe his activities as, “...good trouble, necessary trouble…” He would go on to become one of the original 13 Freedom Riders and one of the “Big Six” who coordinated the 1963 March on Washington.
Lewis got his start in elected office in 1981, when he was elected as an at-large council member of Atlanta’s City Council. In 1987, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, a position he would hold until his death.
By 1998, Lewis had begun writing, publishing his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. In 2013, Lewis, along with writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, published the first volume in the graphic novel trilogy March, which detailed Lewis’s and other Civil Rights icons’ efforts during the Civil Rights Movement. Among others, March won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, an Eisner Award, and became the first graphic novel to receive the National Book Award. Lewis was also the 2016 Nashville Public Library Literary Award winner, and March was the selected book for Nashville Reads in 2017.
Representative John Lewis died on July 17, 2020, the same day as his friend and fellow Civil Rights activist, Reverend C.T. Vivian. He was 80 years old. His legacy lives on and his story is shared with hundreds of visitors each year in NPL’s Civil Rights Room. His friends, his family, and his admirers at NPL miss him dearly.
Thelma Harper didn’t just break through the glass ceiling of Tennessee politics — she shattered it with a proverbial sledgehammer. With her fiery personality — and what could arguably be called the finest collection of hats in Tennessee public service — Harper blazed a trail through both our city and our state, leaving behind a legacy of fighting to improve the lives of Tennessee’s most vulnerable residents.
Born on December 2, 1940 in Brentwood, Harper got her start in politics in the early 1980s as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. In 1983, she was elected to the Metropolitan Council of Nashville, becoming only the second woman of color to do so. She served on the Metro Council until 1991. During that time, Harper was a member of the Planning, Zoning, Historical and Port Authority; Codes, Fair, and Farmers Market; and School committees.
Most famously, Harper was a key combatant in the fight to close the Bordeaux landfill, which created unsanitary conditions for the residents of Bordeaux. Organizing protests and blockades of dump trucks, Harper was arrested along with her fellow activists for trying to shut the landfill down. Though Harper had left the council by then, her efforts ultimately paid off: the landfill was finally closed in 1994.
In 1991, Harper made history, becoming the first Black woman to become a Tennessee State Senator. She wasted no time in using her new position to fight for the people she served. During her tenure in the Tennessee State Senate, Harper passed legislation waiving fees for low-income families to get school lunches and supplies; mandated insurance coverage for reconstructive surgery for breast cancer survivors; enacted the Tennessee Safe Haven Law to protect abandoned children; and more. Harper was also a key advocate for the construction of our Main Library in downtown Nashville, which opened on June 9, 2001.
After nearly 40 years of serving Nashvillians at both the local and state levels, Thelma Harper retired from public service in 2018. If you’d like to know more about her life and work, Sarah of Metro Nashville Archives wrote an excellent blog post about her.
James Carrol “J.C.” Napier
Most people love stories of triumphing over adversity to achieve great things. There’s something about the idea of overcoming your circumstances, no matter how bleak they may be, to make your mark in life that people identify with and long for themselves. If there’s anyone whose story encapsulates that theme, it’s J.C. Napier’s.
Born into slavery on June 9, 1845 in Nashville, Napier and his family were freed by their owner in 1848. He attended a private school for free Black children at what is now 6th Avenue, until White vigilantism forced it to close, with the race riot of December 1856 suspending education for Black people in Nashville until 1862. His family then sent him to Ohio to continue his education, culminating in a law degree from Howard University, in Washington D.C., in 1872.
Returning to Nashville to start a private practice, Napier went on to become a prominent figure in both the city’s African American community and its government. He was elected to the Nashville City Council and became the first Black man to preside as president of the council. He was also one of the founders of One Cent Savings Bank (now Citizens’ Savings Bank and Trust Company), where he served as cashier (today called manager), without pay, until his passing.
Wishing to expand opportunities for Black business leaders and workers in his city, Napier founded the Nashville chapter of the National Negro Business League in 1902. His efforts brought him into close contact with the League’s founder, Booker T. Washington, and the two forged a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. Napier also helped organize the 1905 Negro Streetcar Strike, when African Americans – the service's most prominent customers – boycotted local streetcars for one year to protest segregationist policies.
His greatest political achievement came in 1911, when he was selected to serve on President William Howard Taft’s administration as Register of the Treasury. One of four Black politicians to serve with Taft, known as the “Black Cabinet,” Napier remains one of only five African Americans to have their signature on American currency. He ultimately resigned his post in 1913 to protest recently-elected President Woodrow Wilson’s new segregation policies for workspaces, restrooms, and lunch rooms in the Treasury Department.
J.C. Napier died on April 21, 1940, at the age of 94.
Dorothy Lavinia Brown
Dorothy Laviana Brown was a woman of many firsts. She was not only the first African American woman to become a surgeon in the Southeastern United States, but the first Black woman to be elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives. She was also the first publicly known single mother to adopt a child in Tennessee. And none of it came to her easily.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 7, 1914, Brown’s unmarried mother surrendered her to what was then called the Troy Orphan Asylum, in Troy, New York, when she was just five months old. When she was five, she had her tonsils removed, which sparked her interest in medicine. Brown remained at the orphanage until she was 12, when her mother tried to make her live with her again, only for Brown to run away five times, each time back to the orphanage. When she was 15, she ran away to enroll in Troy High School. The principal, learning that she was unhoused, arranged for her to be taken in by a local family, the Redmons, whom Brown said played a pivotal role in shaping her as a person.
Graduating from Bennet College in 1941, Brown began her graduate medical studies at Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, in 1944, graduating in 1948. She completed a year-long internship at Harlem Hospital in New York City, but was denied a residency because critics said women “could not handle the rigors of surgery.” Undeterred, she returned to Meharry and completed a residency there, becoming a professor of surgery in 1955 and the first Black woman to become a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons in 1959. She served as the chief surgeon of the now-closed Riverside Hospital from 1957 to 1983.
It was in 1956 that Brown treated a pregnant, unmarried patient who knew she didn’t want to keep her baby. The unnamed patient asked Brown if she would take the child, and she accepted. She officially adopted the child, the first single woman in Tennessee’s history to do so. She named her child Lola Denise Brown to honor her foster mother, Lola Redmon.
With her medical career established, Brown began a move into politics, becoming the first African American woman to serve in the Tennessee House of Representatives, from 1966 – 1968. She generated controversy, and ultimately left politics, because her bill to open abortion opportunities to victims of rape and incest failed to pass by two votes.
Dorothy Brown died on June 13, 2004, at the age of 90.