Nashville NAACP Branch Turns 100, Ushers in New Leadership

The Nashville, Tenn., branch of the NAACP is celebrating its 100-year anniversary and undergoing a revitalization after the election of new officers and executive committee members.

Branch President Rev. Keith Caldwell began his term on Jan. 1. A minister and community organizer, Caldwell said he wants to incorporate a more intergenerational organizational structure by including the wisdom of veteran leaders alongside the new ideas and talents of the millennial generation.

“I want Black Lives Matter and others to be welcome at the table,” Caldwell said. “Maybe 200 of our members fall within the under-40 group. Tech is their first language. We want to reach deeper into that group.”

The branch’s anniversary events included a fundraiser, gospel tribute, branch open house, Civil Rights Movement teach-in and young professional’s mixer. The centennial celebration culminated with a Renaissance 100 Gala on April 6.

The theme for Nashville’s 100-year anniversary is “Keeping it 100.”

“It reflects our need to ground in a reality of let’s keep the main things the main things and let’s not get caught up with things that are not critical to achieving our liberation,”

Caldwell said.

The Nashville branch of the NAACP was chartered on Feb.10, 1919, after the establishment of the NAACP’s first Tennessee branch in Memphis in 1917.

Since its inception, Nashville’s NAACP branch has been on the front lines of the struggle for equality. In 1924, NAACP assistant secretary, Walter White, traveled to Nashville as part of his field investigation of lynchings following the lynching of Sammie Smith, a 15-year-old Black youth who was kidnapped by a mob from his hospital bed.

In 1973, the Nashville NAACP branch called for a citizen review board following the police shooting death of Tennessee State University student Ronald Lee Joyce. In 2018, nearly 50 years later, Nashville voters approved a community oversight board that will have independent power to investigate allegations of misconduct against Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD) officers. The vote came after public outcry over the February 2017 police shooting death of Jocques Clemmons and the police shooting death of Daniel Hambrick in July 2018.

“The community oversight board came about through appeals through the NAACP. The oversight board means there will be representation. The community oversight board is more objective about racial concerns that are usually dismissed. That’s big progress,” said Charles Kimbrough, 92, who was president of the Nashville branch from 1973 to 1980. Kimbrough has been a member of the Nashville branch for more than 50 years.

Jamye Coleman Williams was active in the Nashville branch of the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement. Williams served on the executive committee and at one time oversaw the youth division in Nashville. At age 100, Williams remembers the Nashville branch being extremely active in marches and demonstrations.

“We wanted to keep the young people interested in the movement, but we didn’t want them to do anything that would get them arrested,” Williams said. “In the South, the slightest thing would get them arrested.”

In 1965, Nashville businessman John Westley (J.W.) Frierson bequeathed the space at 1308 Jefferson Street to the Nashville NAACP for its headquarters.

“We maintain hours of operation and have been blessed to have a physical office we can call our home,” said Ludye N. Wallace, who served four terms as president of the Nashville branch. The office space, Wallace noted, allowed Nashville to be at the forefront of civil rights issues.

Today there are more than 1,000 current members of the Nashville branch. The goal is to increase membership to 3,000 by the end of 2019, said Caldwell

In addition to police oversight, Caldwell said education and health care are major issues members of the Nashville branch are working on in the city. The branch wants to help parents fight for their children’s education in public schools. Additionally, the Nashville NAACP is fighting to keep the area’s only safety net hospital open.

Kimbrough said the Nashville branch of the NAACP has always been involved in the local, statewide and national fight for justice and equality and will continue to do so.

“We are celebrating over 100 years of carrying out the reason why the NAACP was founded,” he said.

In 1979, a cross was burned in front of the Nashville NAACP office. And there’s a bullet hole lodged in the glass where someone fired a shot into the office more than a decade ago.

“It serves as a constant reminder of the threats we face as we do the critically important work of justice-making,” Caldwell said.

— Cynthia Yeldell Anderson

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