Civil Rights / Cold War
I40 02 Fence I40 01 Opposition I40 03 Ritz

An African American community's fight over I-40

When planning the location of Tennessee’s interstate system in the 1940s, planners had to figure out how to get the interstates in and out of the major cities without causing too much disruption in the city street system and existing buildings.

In Nashville, planners routed I-40 eastward through the middle of a predominantly African American community into downtown. This caused concern among the black residents who felt that the interstate would damage property values and the sense of a unique community.
In October of 1967 a 40 member citizen group, calling themselves the I-40 Steering Committee, began a legal battle against the proposed location of the new route of Interstate 40. 
The I-40 Steering Committee claimed that the state highway officials were being racially discriminating in their plans. The proposed location of the road was near Tennessee A&I State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College as well as drug stores, groceries, and cafes that were all within easy walking distance of the residents in the area. The committee claimed that an access-controlled interstate would stop people from walking or directly driving over the roadway. 
The roadway, the committee said, would isolate these African American-owned businesses from their clientele and financially devastate their community. The I-40 Steering Committee also charged that residents were not given proper notification of the hearing held to discuss any citizen concerns before a route was decided upon. 
The group took their complaint to the Davidson County Tennessee General Sessions Court. State attorneys argued that the proposed route had been on file at the Davison County registrar’s office since September 1958. They argued that there was no alternate route for the interstate, and that the committee was exaggerating the amount of damage that the road would cause to the North Nashville community.
When the judge ruled in favor of the state, the committee appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Although the court did agree that the method of notification was unsatisfactory, they did not feel that it was racially motivated. The notification and public hearing that was held had been handled in a similar fashion to hearings in the other 94 counties. There was a unanimous decision against the I-40 Steering Committee. 
Although the committee appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, they lost the battle. In 1968, the state resumed work on the project.
Many of the predictions by the Steering Committee came to pass.          Within a year of construction, the majority of the businesses in the area had suffered financially. Many closed. The value of housing had dropped more than 30 percent.   Many people feel that this community has never fully recovered from the traumatic effects of the highway.
The struggle over the route of I-40 through Nashville is considered one of the most bitter in national highway history, according to a study led by Professor Charles A. Zuzak of the University of Tennessee. It later became the basis for revisions when the government created the Highway Act of 1970. This act, in addition to the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, helped a citizen’s group win a similar legal battle when I-40 was proposed to be built through Overton Park in Memphis. In this case, the roadway now ends on a Memphis street, miles from the originally planned destination.

Picture Credits:
  • Metro councilmen Harold Love (left) and Z. Alexander Looby consult as Dr. Flournoy Coles expresses his opposition of the North Nashville African American community to the location of   I-40 in Nashville.  Photograph was taken in October 1967 by Robert Johnson.  Courtesy of The Tennessean  
  • Houses and businesses along the western side of Jefferson Street are behind a 6 ft-high steel fence after the construction of I-40 in North Nashville.  The caption said that some residents complained that they can't get their mail delivered because of the fence.  Federal regulations required that fences be placed along the ramps of interstates to keep people and animals off the roadway.  Photograph was taken in November 1970 by Jimmy Ellis.  Courtesy of The Tennessean
  • The Ritz Theater in North Nashville on Jefferson Street across the street from the Fisk campus.  It closed in 1969 after work started on I-40 in 1968.  Courtesy of the Metro Nashville Archives

   Civil Rights / Cold War >>  Everyday Life >>  How They Worked >>  Transportation

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