Commentary: “A tourniquet of concrete”

How the politics of race drove the construction of I-40 through a thriving Black neighborhood

A mural of Freedom Riders painted by artist Michael Cooper on Jefferson Street, just under I-40. (Photo: Theron Corse/NashvillePublicArt.com)
A mural of Freedom Riders painted by artist Michael Cooper on Jefferson Street, just under I-40. (Photo: Theron Corse/NashvillePublicArt.com)

Tennessee appears set to remove the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust at the State Capitol. This move was long overdue—Mississippi managed to remove their Confederate symbol before we did—but it is a significant victory, especially for the activists who have long pushed for this change. 

Much work remains to be done, though. Another tangible symbol of racism stands not far from the Tennessee State Capitol today and deserves renewed attention, debate, and critique. Tennessee leaders pushed it through, despite opposition, not long before they put up the Forrest bust (also despite opposition). It is called Interstate 40. 

I-40 cut a thriving black community in half. Anyone from Nashville knows that I-40 does not follow a straight-line path through North Nashville. Starting in Bellevue, it follows Charlotte closely. At about 39th Ave N, though, it veers abruptly northeast, cutting between TSU and Fisk and slashing across Jefferson Street. It did not have to be this way, as I detail in a forthcoming Belmont Law Review article. 

Initial plans for I-40 collapsed after they intruded too closely on white interests. Planners most likely abandoned one route between Charlotte and Broadway because it encroached too closely on Belle Meade and Vanderbilt. Later, the most logical route for I-40—hugging Charlotte all the way downtown—did not survive fears that it might adversely affect nearby white businesses, residents, and a hospital.

Civil rights attorney and later State Sen. Avon Williams, Jr. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Civil rights attorney and later State Sen. Avon Williams, Jr. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Planners ultimately viewed routing I-40 towards Jefferson as the “only obvious feasible alternative.” No studies supported this choice of route. Instead, planners thought of I-40 as a perverse form of “slum” clearance; they sought to aim the road “like a gun, right at the heart of the slums.” 

It should go without saying that the final I-40 route did not go through a “slum”. It barreled through a thriving black neighborhood. Despite decades of redlining, Jefferson Street anchored a bustling black business district, cultural and religious center, academic cluster, and a healthy middle-class black neighborhood. Before the construction of I-40, Jefferson Street enjoyed its own “Golden Age,” as the late, great historian Dr. Reavis Mitchell wrote. Artists from Little Richard to Jimi Hendrix got their starts playing Jefferson Street clubs. 

State and city planners were either ignorant of or actively hostile to this vibrant neighborhood. The final route, approved by the federal government in 1958, actually affected twice as many homes and three times as many churches and businesses as the Charlotte route.

Opposition to the I-40 route developed too late to swing public opinion or win a court fight. State and city leaders failed to inform the black community about I-40. Public hearing announcements about I-40 did not appear in any local papers; they appeared only at post offices in white neighborhoods and, to add insult to injury, they used the wrong date. State bureaucrats later misled black leaders for years about the route’s finality, even as they quietly purchased right-of-way for the route. 

In 1967, when the state publicly announced its final construction plans, a group of concerned citizens hired local attorney Avon Williams and took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court declined to hear their case by just one vote. Misdirection helped the state delay opposition to I-40, and that delay helped the state successfully argue that too much time and money had been invested to change course now. Construction proceeded as planned. 

It is difficult to overstate the impact of I-40 on North Nashville. As Steven Hale recently showed in an excellent Scene story, the legacy of I-40 is still very much with us. I-40 demolished or forcibly moved around eighty percent of Nashville’s black businesses—almost 130 in total. Black Nashvillians lost more than six hundred homes and six churches. The road ultimately displaced nearly 1,500 people, and cut off TSU from Fisk and Meharry. The housing conditions in the neighborhood completely flipped. 

Ultimately, I-40 symbolized white indifference or hostility to black life and black livelihoods. The poet Tiana Clark put it most vividly: “1968, they built the interstate. I-40 bisected the black community like a tourniquet of concrete. There were no highway exits.” 

Planners ultimately viewed routing I-40 towards Jefferson as the “only obvious feasible alternative.”  (They) thought of I-40 as a perverse form of “slum” clearance; they sought to aim the road “like a gun, right at the heart of the slums. 

City and state leaders must repair this damage. The city’s sole effort so far is literally a history of Jefferson Street insultingly placed under I-40 itself. What can or should be done today, then? Proposals abound, from building a land bridge over I-40 to tearing it down completely. I do not pretend to have all the answers. Cities from Atlanta to Tulsa to Los Angeles have similarly sordid histories, and Nashville should learn from them as they reckon with their own pasts. At a minimum, though, city and state leaders should fully investigate the I-40 story and publicly apologize for the damage caused—through something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and center longtime residents of North Nashville in subsequent policy design and execution. Efforts to repair the damage caused by I-40 should prioritize rebuilding and restoring the black wealth so wounded by the road’s construction. These efforts must focus on preventing further displacement of the black community, especially in light of the tornado

The stories we tell about ourselves matter. White Nashville has long comforted itself about how “civil” our city was during the civil rights movement, as if Diane Nash politely asked Ben West to desegregate the lunch counters and the rest was history. This story is alluring but false: it obscures the racist terrorism that motivated Nash and many others to march on the courthouse that day and the many forms of resistance to school desegregation.

It also obscures I-40: there was nothing civil about I-40. To put it bluntly, Nashville slowly desegregated lunch counters in its white business district, even as city and state leaders enacted policy that all-but destroyed a thriving black business district. We can and should celebrate the former, but we cannot do so honestly until we acknowledge and address the latter.