I often find myself reflecting on the years I spent growing up in North Nashville. During the early 1980s, most of my childhood friends lived on streets that bordered the city’s black colleges. Interestingly enough, so did many of the coeds who attended one of Nashville’s four HBCUs: Tennessee State University, Meharry Medical College, Fisk University and an occasional seminary student from American Baptist College. Sometimes they even sought off-campus housing over the Kelley Miller Smith Bridge, located at the foot of Jefferson Street, connecting East and North Nashville.
It was commonplace to have our street football games interrupted by pedestrian HBCU students who would not allow us to continue throwing inaccurate passes. They taught us how to throw, catch and run plays. These students came from everywhere; places like Bolivar, Tennessee; San Diego, California; Boston Massachusetts and all points in-between, gladly becoming a part of our community.
The presence of these HBCU coeds in the Jefferson Street Corridor was ubiquitous. We would regularly encounter HBCU students at the coin laundry, at the corner market and at Mary’s BBQ Pit. One would routinely see Meharry Medical students standing in line, in white lab coats, waiting for their food orders. It was only when I traveled to other cities without HBCUs that I noticed absence of young, black college students, who were expanding the classrooms of their learning into the larger community as they taught and learned out loud.
The thing that stands out most to me about growing up in the midst of a vibrant HBCU community is its rich cultural experiences as well as the sense we had that going to college was not only possible, but was expected.
If those students could leave their homes and come to a new city to attend school the least we could do was attend college in our own city. The students were models of persistence as they made sacrifices–eating ramen noodles, catching the city bus, and living several to an apartment to cut cost in the name of education.
I’m thankful to have grown up in North Nashville, the heart of the HBCU community. And to the HBCU students–gladiators who changed our lives in ways large or small, I thank you.
Keith Caldwell is a graduate of American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee and has pursued graduate studies at Vanderbilt University School of Divinity. He serves as executive director of The Urban EpiCenter, a multi-racial, grassroots organization in Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee.