African American News and Genealogy

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Hadley may have been first public park for blacks

93-year-old facility is steeped in history What is the history of Hadley Park? — Michelle Matthews, Nashville. Nashville Mayor Hilary Howse opened the park on July 4, 1912. It was a day of "threatening clouds" but a jubilant one for the city's African-Americans gathered for the event. Howse was standing on the porch of the mansion of a former slave plantation. On the same spot 39 years earlier, freed Nashville slaves had listened to Frederick Douglass, the noted abolitionist lecturer and writer. Douglass (1818-1895) was invited to make the 1873 visit by the Nashville plantation's owner, John L. Hadley. Although a former slaveholder, Hadley was intent on helping his freed slaves adapt to their new status as productive citizens. The white-haired Douglass even sat for a photo portrait by Nashville's German-American photographer Carl C. Giers. Mayor Howse (1866-1938), a Democrat and social reformer dedicated to uniting Nashville's ethnic communities, was in his element at the 1912 dedication. He promised the Hadley Park crowd of a few hundred a "fair and square deal" for all races by his administration. While Howse described it as the first public park anywhere for blacks, modern-day Nashville parks historian Leland R. Johnson wrote that the statement was true at least for Tennessee and probably even for the South. Earlier, Nashville's African-Americans had enjoyed the privately developed Greenwood Park adjacent to Greenwood Cemetery. Preston Taylor, a Nashville businessman and former slave, established that park in 1905. Hadley Park's name may have come from ex-slaveholder John L. Hadley, part of whose plantation was later transformed into the current Tennessee State University. But the source of the naming is unclear. Johnson considered John Hadley likely but left open the possibility that the name came from Dr. W.A. Hadley, a black Nashville physician. Dr. Hadley had helped with the 1897 Tennessee Centennial alongside the event's "director general," Maj. E.C. Lewis. Lewis conceived the idea for Nashville's Parthenon and named Hadley Park in his later role heading Nashville's parks board. Stone columns at the main entrance of the 34-acre park list Davidson County's black soldiers who died in World War I. They were installed as a part of a Depression-era Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s. During World War II, black soldiers here for practice maneuvers were furnished with shower facilities at the park. Later, it also had a swimming pool that was widely popular. In January 1949, then-Mayor Thomas L. Cummings dedicated a new park community building. During more recent times, Hadley Park, at 28th Avenue North and Jefferson Street, was noted for an ambitious series of about 13 concerts held annually each summer from 1959 throughout the 1960s. They ranged from jazz to gospel to opera arias by Verdi. Many featured young "discovery" performers rated by the audience. Don Q. Pullen, the master of ceremonies and a frequent performer himself, was the host and organizer. Events over the years also included such well-known musicians as Grand Ole Opry legend DeFord Bailey in 1970 and W.O. Smith in 1968. In July 1978, Hadley Park hosted the first newly permitted political rally in a city park — for ultimately unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Jake Butcher.


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