Investigating North Nashville

Aerial view of the Fisk University campus and the North Nashville neighborhood beyond (1946). source: Jefferson Street Photo Project, Fisk Special Collections

Guest contributor: Katharine A. Burnett (Fisk University)

At the beginning of our co-taught course in Spring 2022, my colleague, Dr. Leslie Collins, and I asked our students at Fisk University — an HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee — to write reflective papers on their roles as researchers. We asked them to consider their roles as “stakeholders” in the research they were about to conduct with community members in the North Nashville neighborhood. Regardless if they called North Nashville (or even Fisk) home, how did the students see themselves in relation to the local community? And how did that positionality shape their approach to working with community members to preserve the community’s histories and legacies? 

This question —“How are you a stakeholder?” — was a driving force throughout the semester, because the primary goal of the course was to pair traditional archival practices with the methods of participatory action research. In short, a blend of “humanities” content with “social science” methodology. Time and again, we asked the students (and ourselves) to consider and reconsider our investment in North Nashville and our two community partners, the Pearl High School Alumni Association and Westwood Baptist Church

Both partners are long-time anchors in a historic, predominantly Black community that is being eclipsed by gentrification and development. Pearl, once the preeminent Black high school in Nashville before desegregation, and Westwood, a predominantly Black church that recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary, are important community standard-bearers. For their course projects, the students worked with representatives from each community group to digitize materials documenting the history of the neighborhood, record the stories and oral histories of community members, and create digital spaces to share these legacies. 

The result was one of the best courses I have ever taught — and one of the best experiences one could have as a researcher and educator. The students worked together with the representatives from each group to hold listening sessions, develop proposals for archival projects that the community groups could approve (or deny), and then executed those plans with community members to create a set of working archives that then belonged to the community groups at the end of the semester. Thinking of their roles as stakeholders led the students to keep the priorities of their clients (as we referred to the community groups) in mind, and also continually raised the question, “Who is this for?” 

As one of the students put it in her final reflective paper, “This was not just for a grade or experience, this was actually to sit down and listen to who I would consider unsung heroes and put their story into the hands of others who may eventually want to be genuine stakeholders as well.” Legacies, then, mean more than the lingering remnants of the past. When those being affected and represented are centralized, legacies become active modes of shaping the evolution of communities into the future.

Katharine A. Burnett is associate professor of English and chair of the department of Arts & Languages at Fisk University, as well as a Nashville native. She is the author of Cavaliers and Economists: Global Capitalism and the Development of Southern Literature, 1820-1860 (LSU Press, 2019) and co-editor of The Tacky South (LSU Press, 2022) and the Routledge Companion to Literature of the U.S. South (Routledge, 2022). Fisk University is an Institutional Affiliate of the Legacies of American Slavery network. Some of the work described here was supported by a previous grant through CIC’s Humanities Research for the Public Good program. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Fisk University or the Council of Independent Colleges.

Note: There will be no post from us on Monday, May 29th in observance of Memorial Day.