William Edmondson, “Williams Tombstone” (1931), limestone (Collection of the Tennessee State Museum)

William Edmondson, “Williams Tombstone” (1931), limestone (collection of the Tennessee State Museum)

Nashville’s municipal government has abandoned a controversial scheme to sell the land on which celebrated African American artist William Edmondson lived for decades. The proposal to sell Edgehill Community Memorial Park — which includes Edmondson’s homesite and is a part of the neighborhood he lived and worked in until his death in 1951 — would have likely resulted in that land being bought by private developers, all but ensuring the erasure of traces of Edmondson’s legacy.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, “William Edmonson at work” (1937), Archives of American Art (via Wikimedia Commons)

Born in 1874 in Nashville’s Edgehill neighborhood, Edmondson started out carving custom tombstones for friends and family. He eventually gained national recognition for his limestone sculptures, establishing himself as one of the foremost artists from Tennessee. Edmondson was the first African American artist to ever have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and his work has subsequently been displayed museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art, where it was featured in the recent exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art. Although his home no longer exists on the grounds of Edgehill Community Memorial Park, the surrounding neighborhood was an important part of his entire artistic career, and it was a neighborhood that has historically brought together Nashville’s black working class and upper-class white citizens.

The proposal to sell the park represented a symbolic blow to artists, historians, and the city’s African American community; it also further obscured the legacy of a figure who is often overlooked in Nashville’s history. In response to the possibility that the park would be sold, artists, curators, and scholars wrote an open letter opposing the sale and calling for the site’s preservation. “Now, with the Edgehill Community in peril, we have the rare opportunity to stand in the way of an injustice like this repeating itself,” the letter reads. “For too long, the treasure that is William Edmondson has been taken from Nashville and from Edgehill and allowed to enrich other communities. It’s time to bring him home.”

The Edgehill Community Memorial Park (photo by Vincent Phamvan‎, courtesy the Save the Edmondson Homesite Park & Memorial Gardens Coalition)

Edgehill Community Memorial Park formerly held the Murrel School, a special needs elementary school, and Metro Schools still owns that property to this day. The park was one of a few spaces that Nashville’s Metro Budget and Finance Committee considered putting up for sale in order to balance the city’s budget for its upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1, but it appears that the city will have to find the estimated $13 million that the land might have fetched elsewhere.

Among the signees of the open letter opposing the sale is University of Minnesota professor and art historian Jennifer Jane Marshall, who is currently writing a book on Edmondson. Marshall first heard about the plan to sell the property on June 4, and was invited by fellow Edmondson historian and filmmaker, Mark Schlicher, to join the fight. Marshall claims the city of Nashville has ignored the significance of the site.

William Edmondson, “Angel” (ca 1931), limestone, 22 x 16 1/2 x 5 1/2 in, Robert M. Greenberg Collection (courtesy the National Gallery, Washington, DC)

“[That] Edmondson remains a bit of a hidden gem of Nashville’s past is especially confusing for a city that otherwise is built absolutely around culture and the arts,” Marshall told Hyperallergic. “With the Edgehill site, there is the opportunity to do more to elevate Edmondson as an icon specifically of Nashville’s black artistic history. For the city not only to walk away from this opportunity, but actively to cover it over with private developments sends a signal.”

In addition to the open letter, Schlicher organized opposition to the sale by setting up an online petition to fight against the city’s plan. Heading into Monday night’s decisive Metro Budget and Finance Committee vote, the petition had accrued nearly 2,000 signatures. Scholars and art historians weren’t the only ones worried about this decision; residents also stepped up to protest the city’s decision to move ahead with this plan without asking for input from the community. On June 11, community members gathered to discuss the development plans, paying tribute to Edmondon’s memory by holding a candlelight vigil near his homesite. For many, the city’s decision conformed to patterns of development and gentrification reshaping the city at large. As of last December, a number of Nashville’s historically African American neighborhoods — including Edgehill — had experienced 20% percent population declines of black residents.

William Edmondson, “Untitled (Bird Bath with Figures)” (ca 1932–40), carved limestone (courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Margaret Z. Robson Collection, gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson)

“The Mayor’s Office has been in touch with Metro Schools, MDHA [Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency], and Councilman Colby Sledge about the future of the Murrell School property,” Michel Cass, the communications director for Nashville Mayor David Briley, told Hyperallergic prior to Monday’s vote shelving the sale. “Once the operating budget process is finished, we’ll start a robust community engagement process to talk about what needs to happen there. We’re committed to working with everyone to find the right answer for Edgehill and for Nashville.”

Residents of Edgehill, other parts of Nashville, and beyond fought successfully to preserve Edmondson’s legacy at Edgehill Community Memorial Park. Now, Marshall suggests that this fight could lead to a shift in the relationship between artists and their communities.

“This effort is so hopeful and positive,” Marshall said. “If … this engagement produces a community center that activates all aspects of Edmondson’s career, such as its accessibility, engagement of an interracial audience, and its connection to place, then we may have a model for how artists and communities can build one another reciprocally and ethically.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Edmondson was buried in an unmarked grave at the Edgehill Community Memorial Park. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Ararat Cemetery. We apologize for this error, which has been corrected.

The Edgehill Community Memorial Park (photo by Vincent Phamvan‎, courtesy the Save the Edmondson Homesite Park & Memorial Gardens Coalition)

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Shelby Black

Shelby holds a BA in Media Studies from the University of San Francisco. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee and works as a freelancer with bylines in PAPERMAG and i-D.

One reply on “Public Outcry Halts Plan to Sell Artist William Edmondson’s Property to Developers”

  1. Is it irony that a man known as a sculptor and made his living carving gravestones, lies in an unmarked grave, or is there a story behind this? Regardless, it serves as an allegory for the city of Nashville’s true feelings and respect for its local artists.

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