by Nina Cardona and Blake Farmer
The historic 1962 vote followed years of heated debate about the make up of the school board and who would get sewer service. Underneath those bureaucratic conversations ran a quiet thread about what the change would mean for African Americans and their role in government.
It had only been five years since crowds had protested the first black students to enroll in white schools. Non-violent protestors were pulled off their seats and punched at downtown lunch counters about a year before, and college students from Fisk and Tennessee State had boarded busses to Mississippi just that spring as part of the Freedom Rides.
Meanwhile, droves of people – mostly whites – were leaving the central city to move into suburban areas of the county like Green Hills and Donelson.
“In the city of Nashville, it was real small and there were enough black people that they could have elected a mayor,” says Judge Harry Lester in an oral history recording from the Metro Archives. “They may not have run anybody but that’s what they thought.”
Lester said the white people still
living in the city limits saw consolidation as a way of heading off the possibility of a black mayor. Join city and county together, the idea went, and once again there’s a large enough white majority to easily hold on to power.
Dreams of a Black Mayor
But one man’s nightmare is another’s dream. Z. Alexander Looby was Nashville’s most prominent black lawyer and a city councilman. Looby accepted a seat on the committee charged with hammering out a metro charter proposal, even though he initially balked at the idea of letting that chance for a shift in power slip away.
“At the outset, he told me that he was not in favor of one government,” says businessman Victor Johnson in another oral history. “But that he would work very hard to write the very best charter, and then work very hard to beat it.”
Johnson, who is the father of Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson, remembers a conversation soon after he and Lobby were appointed to the charter committee. He understood what Looby was after – to make sure the consolidation issue would die for good. But with so many people and businesses moving out of Nashville proper, Johnson was worried the city’s economy couldn’t hold together on its own.
“I told him, I said, ‘Councilman Looby, I can understand your feelings, but you’re wrong,’” Johnson says recalling the conversation. “I said, ‘if we don’t have metropolitan government, the core city of Nashville will atrophy and you, or whoever’s the first black mayor, will have nothing but trouble.’”
Whether or not it was Johnson’s persuasion that did the trick, Looby did change his mind, and the measure did pass.
The switch to a metropolitan government has been cited as a reason why Davidson County has been able to grow and prosper, but it also did exactly what some had hoped-and others feared. It ensured that the very top level of local leadership would remain white.
The closest an African American has gotten to the mayor’s office is vice mayor, which oversees the 40-member Metro Council. But even that was a fluke.
“It was not that Nashville or any group or anybody decided we’re going to run Howard for vice mayor of Nashville,” says former vice mayor Howard Gentry. “Howard kind of stumbled into it.”
As speaker pro tem, Gentry became vice mayor when Ronnie Steine resigned in scandal. Gentry did get elected as an incumbent. Then in 2007, he took a crack at the city’s glass ceiling and came within spitting distance of the mayor’s office.
It’s an accomplishment he’s proud of. But Gentry says without consolidation, that
“first” would have been checked off decades ago. Still, he acknowledges the benefits of combining city and county services and broadening the tax base.
“It certainly feels better as an entire city having consolidated and having a metropolitan government, but I won’t say it was worth not having a black mayor,” he says.
Cities like Birmingham and Charlotte crossed that bridge long ago. Last year, Jacksonville elected its first black mayor. State Senator Thelma Harper says in regards to breaking racial barriers, consolidation wasn’t so “forward thinking.”
“We’re still doing a lot of firsts an awful lot right here in Nashville,” Harper says. “And it shouldn’t be.”