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The only time I saw white people…


I’m a native of Nashville.

In fact, there aren’t many folks as Nashville as I am.  And, I live in the house near Tennessee State University in which I was raised.

When I was a little girl, the only place I saw white people was down town, except for the insurance man who came to the house to collect the payments.

Going downtown to shop for Easter was one of the highlights of the year.  My mother and I would go to Cain Sloan, at 5th and Church near what we now know as the Main Public Library or Castner Knott at the corner of 6th and Church. We would go to Levy’s or Petway Revis to choose a tie for my dad.

But one year, we didn’t go downtown.  It was near Easter in 1960. The black community boycotted downtown.  No Easter outfit for boys or girls, men or women.  No new patent leather shoes.  No new Easter bonnets or gloves.  No snappy Fedoras for the fellows.  We let Easter pass without one nod to fashion.  If we couldn’t sit at a lunch counter at Kress’s or Cain Sloan, we wouldn’t purchase anything in that store or any other store downtown, for that matter.  By May the lunch counters provided service to everyone.

September 1971 was the first time I ever went to school with a white person.  It was my freshman year in college – in the north, of course.  I didn’t realize that racism had many faces and the some of those faces were Northern.

In the years since college, I lived many places, in the U.S. and abroad. And I always come home – to Nashville.  And, the most rapid changes happened over the last 15-20 years.

Nashville was always a black and white city.  However, in the past few years, Nashville has become a city of brown and yellow and beige with languages from the Near East, the Far East, south of the boarder and the east coast of Africa.  There’s an Ethiopian restaurant in the Arcade right down from the Mr. Peanut store.  My mom and I would buy peanuts and candy at the store where a giant Mr. Peanut greeted us after a day of shopping.

You can hear eighty different languages are spoken at one high school in Nashville.  My office is located downtown.  When the weather is fine and everyone is out and about, you can hear French, German and Australian accents.  You can hear people speaking the languages of India, China, and Saudi Arabia along with accents from Boston and New York City.

If I’m near Hume Fogg High School as dismisses, I see rainbows of kids flowing through the doors. One is my cousin, Miles.  And, I wonder what changes he will see during his lifetime as he leaves and returns to Nashville.

So many changes.  Our charge to fight against racism is changing.  Although a young black man with good grades can be admitted to Vanderbilt, there are teachers who fear black boys.  Although I can live anywhere I want to in Nashville, I am penalized by low property values because I choose to live in the neighborhood I love.  My neighbor’s daughter is gorgeous. She is tall, but young enough to still have a boyish frame.  She makes sure her hoodie is down and her hands are clearly visible when she walks across the Wal-Mart parking lot to meet her dad at Lowes.

It’s good that we acknowledge our past while building a welcoming, thriving and progressive Nashville.  Meanwhile, we still duty to continue to end racism, even and especially when it may disguise itself as something else.

Denise D. Bentley

Fisk University, BA

Vanderbilt University School of Law, JD

Director, Tennessee Youth Court Programs, an initiative of the Tennessee Bar Association

About the Author

Denise Bentley, a native of Nashville, holds a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University and a Juris Doctorate from Vanderbilt University School of Law.

Ms. Bentley is the Director of the Tennessee Youth Court Program, an initiative of the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA).  Prior to taking her position with the TBA, she was the violence prevention coordinator for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), 2003-2010.  While at MNPS, Bentley became a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention trainer. Preceding her tenure at MNPS, Ms. Bentley was the project director for the Mills Corporation’s Nashville Jobs Partnership.

After law school, Ms. Bentley served in a judicial clerkship with the Hon. Matthew J. Sweeney, III, and later became a member of the faculty of the University of Tennessee Knoxville College of Business Administration.