Nashville’s unheralded civil rights story gets a second telling.
By Zach Mortice
Many cities where African Americans fought for equality in the 1950s and 1960s are associated with violence: Selma, Memphis, Birmingham. Nashville wasn’t such a place. Its civil rights story was nonviolent and “so successful we don’t know about it,” says Walter Hood, ASLA, who was asked to commemorate this history with a public art installation.
Nashville was a leader in civil rights. It desegregated its public schools relatively early, in 1957, and its activist community and local pastors offered the same suite of training and conditioning for student protestors that many southern cities did. After a historic protest, then-Mayor Ben West was forced to desegregate the city’s lunch counters.
The site of this protest is now home to a commemorative public art and landscape installation by Walter Hood: Witness Walls, for the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, completed in April. It’s the city’s first civil rights-themed piece of public art, according to The Tennessean, and cost $300,000. In an existing park next to the Metro Nashville Courthouse, a group of concave and convex concrete arcs forms a series of outdoor rooms. Two concrete cylinder-shaped fountains burble along, and popular music from the civil rights era plays intermittently.
For the arts programmers with the city, the installation had to be an immersive environment, an active site of remembrance and reverence, not a bronze statue with a plaque to stroll by on your way to somewhere else. “We want this to be an experience. We want this to be a place,” says Caroline Vincent, the city’s director of public art and placemaking.
From the outset, the project that was to become Witness Walls was a bit contentious. Community pressure to more publicly recognize the city’s civil rights history had been building. Vincent and her staff were careful to select a designer with a track record of listening to varied constituents. Anne-Leslie Owens, a public art project manager for the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, had heard Hood described as a “community whisperer”—just the quality they were looking for.
Hood and the public art staff met with local veterans of the civil rights movement, who were also part of the selection committee that picked Hood. They convened community meetings and focus groups, and posted community feedback surveys online. Nashville high school students documented the city’s civil rights history with One Voice Nashville, which helped them produce an oral history podcast series called My Witness. (The last episode is an interview with Hood.)
After gathering this input, Hood settled on an approach and materials that eschewed grand displays of sequential narrative in favor of straightforward construction telling an organic, grassroots story in an abstract way. He began working on two types of concrete panels, each with its own set of imagery, all taken from photos at the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room.
One set of images was derived from collages of photos Hood assembled, which all focused on movement: protestors marching and waving signs, African American mothers walking their kids to school to desegregate them, and police restraining protestors. These concrete panels have a rough texture. The concrete is ground down to reveal dark aggregate, a sharp contrast of gray and black.
The other set of panels depicts people being stationary in showing resistance: integrating lunch counters, or children reading at a desk—all images directly translated from photos. These images are etched more softly, with CNC-milled striations that vary slightly in height, offering a subtler contrast than the dark aggregate panels. These vertical ridges vary by fractions of an inch, spelling out discernable images only when light strikes them a certain way. “The photo images are actually light raking across the lines,” says Hood, who worked with Gate Precast Company to create both sets of panels.
It’s an impressionistic experience that changes depending on the weather and the amount of sunlight. Darkness renders the panels nearly flat. “As you move around, it kind of comes into focus and out of focus,” Hood says.
The installation makes little emphasis on specific events or pivotal people in Nashville’s civil rights history. Instead, the images present collective action, obscuring definitive attributions even more with Hood’s op-art manipulations.
Hood wanted to avoid any intensely didactic narrative in this project because, “If all of the commemorative pieces become overly pedagogical and have to make these statements about history,” he says, “then communities feel that that’s all they need.” It becomes a conversation ender rather than a conversation starter. Likewise, Hood says he wanted to render this project in a prosaic material, something “very ordinary.”
Nashville’s story, Hood says, is one of “ordinary people doing amazing things.” Through the community input process, he met people who appear in his concrete panels, but they never mentioned it to him until opening day. Martin Luther King Jr. appears in one of the impressionistic panels, but you’d need to have Hood point him out to you. He’s just one man in a group, dissolving in and out of view.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Walter Hood as a landscape architect. We regret our error.