60th Anniversary of the Chartering of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County and the African American Community

By Linda T. Wynn Assistant Director for State Programs

As of April 1, 2023, Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County celebrated its 60th Anniversary. The road to consolidating the city and county governments took a protracted meandering path to affirmation. After the Second World War, Davidson County witnessed an exponential increase in its population as residents began leaving Nashville's older urban localities for contemporary houses constructed in more modernistic enclaves known as the suburbs. The county's educational system found it difficult to keep up with the increased school‐age population, the county lacked the financial means to provide fundamental services, such as fire protection, sanitary sewers, or the collection and disposal of refuse. This population shift also created a financial challenge for Nashville's city government, as its tax base began to erode. County residents enjoyed many city services such as the use of its public libraries and parks system without paying the city taxes which funded those services. The county could not provide such services as a sewer system or fire protection. Notwithstanding, Nashville and Davidson County provided some overlapping of services. Both the city and county operated school systems and both governmental entities operated health departments. Nashville and Davidson County elected officials and community leaders resolved that a dualistic approach was needed to combat and solve problems faced by both governments.

The Nashville elections in 1951 presaged a shift in race relations in the “Athens of the South,” a city that perceived itself as a forward-looking southern city. As the older leaders within the African American community passed off the scene, a new generation of leaders came to the forefront and like those before them, worked for the benefit of their community.  Z. Alexander Looby and Robert E. Lillard were the first African Americans elected to Nashville’s city council since the 1911 election of Solomon P. Harris, the first African American council member since 1885. Looby earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University, a Bachelor of Law degree from Columbia University, and a Doctor of Juristic Science from New York University.  Although Lillard and Looby came from different experiences and backgrounds, and represented different electorates within the African American community, both dedicated themselves to increasing the African American influence and power within city government. Ben West narrowly won his mayoral race against incumbent Mayor Thomas Cummings.

Nashville’s 1951 election also connoted a changing of the guard for city’s white political establishment. After being sworn into office, Looby and Lillard focused on legislation and policies that benefited their constituents, namely, doing away with Jim Crow laws that stipulated the separation of the races. Consequently, Attorney Looby introduced bills to desegregate public facilities. The issue of race relations was not the only problem facing Nashville, whites began moving out of the city and consequently the tax base decreased and Davidson County governmental officials under the leadership of County Judge Beverly Briley found themselves struggling to provide the services needed to sustain the population growth. To create a solution, both the Nashville Council and the Davidson County Court created a joint commission of fifteen members to investigate and make recommendations, including merging the two governments. In 1952 the Community Services Commission published "A Future for Nashville," a comprehensive study of the challenges of growth and possible solutions to the problems of providing adequate government services to all residents in an efficient manner. The study indicated that Nashville and Davidson County both had something to offer the other. It provided the foundation for the creation of a city-county commission to write a charter for a unified system of government. With a Nashville-Davidson County consolidation in mind, in 1953 the Tennessee General Assembly enacted legislation that paved the way for local government mergers, notwithstanding, any such merger would have to be approved by voters in both affected areas.

  During the study, in 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its unanimous Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that outlawed the separate system of African American and white schools on a national level. A year later, known as the “Dean” of Nashville’s African American attorneys, Looby filed a suit against the local public schools on behalf of A. Z. Kelley, a barber, whose son Robert was denied access to a nearby white school.  In 1957, the same a federal court issued an order for Nashville’s public schools to desegregate a grade a year, a city-county commission was established to write a charter for a unified system in which the city of Nashville and Davidson County would be consolidated into one governmental unit.

When the African American civil rights movements of World War II began, Looby became the local leader. From 1943 to 1945, he presided over the James C. Napier Bar Association. He ran for the city council in 1940, although a white opponent beat him in a runoff election. In 1946, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hired Looby, Maurice Weaver, and Thurgood Marshall to represent the blacks of Columbia, Tennessee, who were charged with murder following recent race riots in that town. Looby's legal defense helped acquit twenty-three of the defendants. He crisscrossed the state in the company of other black lawyers, arguing against Jim Crowism and discrimination. Looby is credited with desegregating the Nashville Airport's dining room and the city's non-private golf courses. Looby viewed politics as a way to change an oppressive system.

Robert Emmitt Lillard, a native Nashvillian received his education at Immaculate Mother's Academy and in local public schools, and then attended Beggins Commercial College, although his ambition was to become a lawyer.  In 1932, Lillard entered law school after Looby, and other local black leaders organized Nashville's Kent College of Law. He continued his city job and attended law classes five nights a week, and in 1935 he was graduated from the Kent College of Law and passed the bar exam the following year. However, he received an appointment to Nashville’s Fire Engine Company No. 11 at 12th Avenue, North, and Jefferson Street, where he remained until 1950. Lillard then entered the practice of law on a full-time basis and participated in local politics. Earlier in 1932 he organized the 15th Ward Colored Voters and Civic Club. Later he founded the Tennessee Federation of Democratic Leagues. Among other accomplishments, Lillard helped persuade the city to transform Cameron Junior High School into the second high school for local African Americans and successfully secured an ordinance to desegregate the Parthenon in Centennial Park. In 1957, a city-county commission was established to write a charter for a unified system in which the city of Nashville and Davidson County would be consolidated into one governmental unit.

 West and Briley appointed five members each. Both appointed African Americans to serve on the commission. West appointed Council Member Attorney Z. Alexander Looby and Briley appointed pharmacist Dr. George S. Meadors (1893- 1977), founder of People’s Pharmacy and a prominent business leader in the African American community, to the commission. The following year, the committee produced a charter endorsed by both Mayor West and County Judge Briley and the Nashville Banner and Tennessean newspapers. Nashville’s African American community found itself divided over the merging of city and county governments. In Nashville, the African American population was stronger in numbers near the heart of the city and weaker around the suburban edges. Consequently, questions arose about whether African American voters' influence would be diminished by city-county consolidation.

Those African Americans who followed Looby’s reasoning felt that if consolidation generated economic growth, all Nashvillians, including African Americans would be the beneficiaries. Those who followed Lillard feared that if the city and county governments merged, the political gains realized would be loss. In June of 1958, when the charter referendum was held, although it passed in the city, county residents vote against it for concern about an increase in their taxes. Four years later, officials attempted a second charter.

In 1962, when a second charter commission convened, the mood in Nashville changed. Mostly, African American college students managed to sustain their movement to desegregate public accommodations causing the town that saw itself as a moderate southern city to change, although many whites opposed the desegregation of the city’s public facilities. African Americans lost faith in Mayor West because he did not endorse complete desegregation of all public facilities. Although Mayor West and the Banner opposed the second charter as written, it was presented to the voters for their approval. Again, Looby remained steadfast in his support of a consolidated government and Dr. Vivian Henderson, an economics professor at Fisk University (who implemented the economic withdrawal during boycott of downtown merchants) joined Looby in support of the consolidation of city and county government. They believed that through consolidation African Americans could sustain political power by drawing intentional district lines for the 35-member metropolitan council included in the new charter. Because of Attorney Looby's relentless justification of majority African American councilmanic districts during the commission meetings, six of the thirty-five councilmanic districts were drawn to preserve black majorities in them. Dr. Henderson and Attorney Looby contended that economic gains promised by consolidating the two governments would create additional employment opportunities for both African Americans and whites. On June 28, 1962, the charter passed in both the city and the county, despite being rejected by fifty-five percent of African American voters. On April 1, 1963, Beverly Briley was sworn in as the first mayor of Metropolitan Nashville and African American council members Mansfield Douglas, John Driver, and Harold Love, Sr., joined Looby and Lillard among the 40 members of the first Metropolitan council.

Until his death in May 2009, charter member Mansfield Douglas was the last living charter member of the Metro Council. Serving for thirty-six years, after becoming one of the first African American members of the Metro Council, in 1996, Douglas felt the African American community lost its political muscle because of consolidate government. “It has not been to the advantage of minorities” he said. complaining of the inadequacy of road maintenance and care for the indigent. Still, Douglas said, “the consolidated government is a better option than dual city-county government.” Prior to the 60th anniversary celebration of the consolidation of Nashville and Davidson County, several events were held across Nashville as the date of the anniversary approached.

 On April 1, 2023, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County celebrated its 60th Anniversary on the public square. Ironically, as its citizens prepared to celebrate this milestone in its history, a bill passed in the first session of the 113th Tennessee General Assembly that reduced the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County from forty to twenty members. The law was signed into law on March 9, 2023. Effective immediately, the law negatively impacted the upcoming elections. The new statute mandated that Nashville officials draw new councilmanic districts by May 1, 2023, a deadline city functionaries felt unreasonable. Nashville officials filed a lawsuit that contended changing the council’s makeup would throw the city’s elections into chaos, as more than forty members had already launched their councilmanic campaigns. Councilmanic district boundaries would need redrawing to reflect the council’s reduced size. Three state court trial judges, one from Nashville, one from Shelby County and one from Athens, Tennessee, agreed, saying there is a “compelling public interest in preserving the integrity of the Metro election process that is already underway.”

  Today the Metro Council is reflective of its population, including African Americans, women, and others. The consolidation of Nashville and Davidson County gave more citizens the opportunity to participate in the governmental process through service on Metro's boards and commissions. For sixty-years, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County has stood the test of time. However, the question remains, where does it go from here?

Sources Used:

  • Carol Bucy, A Short History of the Creation of Metropolitan Government for Nashville-Davidson County. https://filetransfer.nashville.gov/Portals/0/SiteContent/Government/docs/MetroHistoryBucy.pdf Accessed January 26, 2023.
  • Ansley T. Erickson. Making The Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Brett W. Hawkins, Nashville Metro: The Politics of City-county Consolidation. Vanderbilt University Press, 1966.
  • Benjamin Houston, The Nashville Way: Racial Etiquette and the Struggle for Social Justice in a Southern City. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
  • Nashville Tennessean, “George Sellers Meadors, Pioneer Pharmacist” Obituary, September 29, 1977.
  • Linda T. Wynn. “Z. Alexander Looby” in Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee. Nashville Conference on African American History and Culture, 1995
  • Linda T. Wynn, “Robert Emmitt Lillard” in Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee Nashville Conference on African American History and Culture, 1995
  • Jonathan Mattise, PBS, “Judges Block Tennessee Republican Move to Cut Nashville Council In Half,” April 10, 2023. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/judges-block-tennessee-republican-move-to-cut-nashville-council-in-half  Accessed May 3, 2023.