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Story by Rachel L. Martin, Ph. Photos by Joe Buglewicz. I came back eight years later to a new Nashville that eats new food. The city is growing almost faster than developers can manage. Historic neighborhoods are being razed and renewed. The suburbs are expanding. Fields are being replaced by paved shopping paradises identical to those spreading across the nation.
My friends have moved to the neighborhoods we grew up avoiding. They asked me to meet them for drinks or haute Southern cuisine in places I remembered as industrial wastelands. The web was full of photographs of fried chicken slathered with a hot sauce that somehow kept it crispy, served on a bed of white bread and topped by a pickle.
Then last summer, my friend Julie moved home. She called me. I asked my dad if he had ever had it. But he taught school in the s, and he remembered that some of the black teachers carried their own bottles of hot sauce. Was this the answer? I asked Denise, an older African-American woman in my church who was raised in the city. I went to the Downtown Public Library to do a very unscientific survey of what they had on hand. I walked away with several new ways to fry a chicken.
One of them added some black pepper, but none of them made it spicy. Sure enough, as I started investigating, I discovered Denise was right. I started to suspect the story of hot chicken could tell me something powerful about race relations in Nashville, especially as the city tries to figure out what it will be in the future.
Before the war, about free blacks lived in Nashville. Their houses were clustered in small enclaves, mostly on the northern side of the city. But there were over 3, enslaved people of color in the city. Most of them could not choose where they lived. Many enslaved African-Americans used the war to claim their freedom. They left their homes and moved to the edges of Union camps. The places where the freed people lived became known as contraband camps. Some of these were migrant communities following the soldiers as they campaigned.
Others were permanent settlements where residents plotted streets, built wood cabins and organized churches. Federal troops captured Nashville in February The first Southern state capital to be taken, its early capitulation meant that the city became a key Union base. African-Americans from across Middle Tennessee fled there, and contraband camps sprouted up around the military installations perched on the eastern, western and southern borders of Nashville.
Many chose to remain. Between andAfrican-Americans grew from being 23 to 38 percent of the population. One of the largest Union camps had been Fort Gillem, north of downtown and near where the free blacks lived before the war. Rechartered as Fisk University init became a leading institution of African-American higher education. The wagon road through the fort was renamed Jefferson Street. A prosperous black business district grew up along it, and houses popped up around it. Several other large African-American neighborhoods developed around former camps located in what is now known as East Nashville, just across the Cumberland River from downtown.
Like the Jefferson Street area, these were neighborhoods filled with professionals, businesspeople and skilled laborers. Another black neighborhood grew up a few blocks northwest of the state capital. It had unpaved streets and no sewer system. It became known for saloons, prostitution and other vices. It happened this way: Back in the s at the height of the Great Depression, there was a man named Thornton Prince.
He was a handsome man, tall and good looking. He was also a bit of a womanizer. Women handle cheating partners in all sorts of ways. Some look the other way. Others walk out. A few get even. He had stayed out all night and come home expecting breakfast. She wanted retribution. That morning, just like all their other morning-afters, she got up before him. Oh, no, she made him his favorite. She made him fried chicken.
No one knows what went into that first hot chicken. By the time the bird was cooked, she was sure she had spiced it beyond edibility. As Thornton Prince took his first bite, she must have braced herself for his reaction. Would he curse? Stomp out? The woman disappeared from his life, but her hot chicken lived on. Gone on. She is about 70, with carefully applied makeup, a Farrah Fawcett flip and a contagious laugh.
As we talk, she keeps a close eye on her employees, many of whom are either family members or longtime friends. Customers file past our table.
Some stop to share their own memories. They walk by us to the back of the restaurant where a plywood wall separates the dining room from the kitchen. A window has been cut in the wall, and a woman sits there, ringing up the orders. Occasionally, she yells a and hands over a brown paper bag of food. A young man is stapling strands of yellow, white and red Christmas lights around the window. But who wants to mess with a good story? Reconstruction had seemed to offer African-Americans new opportunities.
Black men got the vote, and a handful were elected. Schools opened, educating children and adults alike. People hoped for land ownership and fair wages. Jim Crow laws hardened the divisions between blacks and whites, making inequality part of the legal code. Lynchings, riots, rapes and other attacks terrorized black communities. Many people left the region, hoping Chicago or New York or Los Angeles would be more peaceful and profitable for them. Others fled the countryside for Nashville and the other cities of the upper South. Jefferson Street gave black Nashvillians places where they could shop, eat, learn and worship safely.
Thanks to these new migrants, the area around Jefferson Street continued to grow and prosper. That same year, the city built Hadley Park, the first park blacks could use. Restaurants, music venues and speakeasies opened. The Ritz Theater let African-Americans watch movies without having to climb into a segregated balcony. Motels and hotels gave travelers options. Similar districts grew up at the heart of the black neighborhoods in East and North Nashville.
Property zoned for residential use was of higher value, and so it was protected from the incursion of commercial interests. Property zoned for commercial or industrial use could be used for single-family dwellings, but at any point, a developer could come into the middle of the neighborhood and start building anything he or she desired. Most white neighborhoods were zoned as residential areas.
African-American neighborhoods were zoned as commercial and industrial properties. They justified it by saying they would rid the city of vice. The plat included six historic African-American churches, a business district, schools and other sites of community life. The city replaced the neighborhood with the State Library and Archives, a large office building, a six-lane parkway, terraced parking lots and green space. They announced that they would replace the rest of the neighborhood with a planned municipal auditorium and private development.
Few provisions were made for the people who lost their homes.
Urban redevelopment accelerated over the next several decades, and it bore down upon other black neighborhoods around the city. The Federal Housing Act offered to pay up to 90 percent of the cost if Nashville would raze unwanted buildings and replace them with superhighways. The city planners cleared the edge of East Nashville for a new interstate. They emptied another acres for warehousing and industrial use. Another highway was routed through Edgehill, a lower-income, predominantly minority community. Neighborhood covenants controlled who could buy the houses, and so these areas were up to 98 percent white.
Nashville grew increasingly segregated. From the beginning, the restaurant was an unusual place. Thornton had a farm. His brothers worked for the post office or at other restaurants. Since they had other jobs, they opened the restaurant after their workday ended and they stayed open later than any other restaurant in town: midnight during the week and until 4 a.
He loved the food and the hours. Pretty soon, the Opry stars were headed there after every performance. The Princes needed a place to seat their white celebrity clientele without alienating their black customers.Hot Nashville-davidson women
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