Middle Tennessee is unceded Native land that, for generations before colonial expropriation, was used as hunting ground and some settlements for a range of tribes in the area, including Cherokee, Yuchi, Shawnee, Creek, and Chickasaw across Tennessee. Five years after quite literally agreeing to recognize Native land sovereignty over all Tennessee in 1763, colonizers then shifted to take all Native land through a series of forced treaties and violent settler wars over a period of 65 years and centered on the white Watauga settlement in Middle Tennessee. The state was also violently affected by the Trail of Tears, and other waves of genocidal violence, to the point where official Tribal organizations have been wiped out.
The growing frontier settlement around Fort Nashborough and Davidson County relied upon numerous Black residents who were not enslaved and central to the region’s foundation. Large influxes of white residents, though, changed the dynamic across the 1800s as the region became a real estate hub; many of these depended upon enslavement to create their small plots, and there were nearly 15,000 enslaved Black residents by 1860. Sites like the Nashville Public Square Park marked with violent histories of auctions by enslavers. At the same time, even with post-Civil War booms and the expansion of the city during the New Deal era, Black population shares were in the 20-30% range, as compared to Memphis, where the plantation economy and other factors shaped a city that has been majority Black.
Centuries later, Middle Tennessee itself is best described as holding, in one interviewees’ words, “subrural” regions with pockets of density spread across larger expanses. Subrural regions make coordination and regional integration of services complicated, and also make for clear and stark differences among who has access. At the same time, there are a few key metropolitan hubs that very much represent the city of Nashville in the national eye - swarmed with bars, music venues, shops and other businesses (with the city labeled a home to country music).
Since 2000, Nashville’s metro region population has neared majority-minority, particularly as the share of Latinx residents has grown, and that landscape is riddled with segregation and inequality. Representing about 1% of the population in the 1990s, Latinx communities represented 10% of the demographic balance in 2017, many being global migrants. Regions like Southeast Nashville became dubbed “Little Mexico.”
Throughout the same time period, Black residents’ share of the overpopulation increased from 24 to 28%, and Asian Pacific Islanders from just under 1% to 3%. Currently, Asian Pacific Islanders represent about 3.5% of the region, including a large Burmese population resettled in the wave of Southeast Asian wars in the 1970s, as well as Kurdish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian refugees. Yet, many migrants also face specific incidences of racism — including a failed 2009 English only bill and Tennessee’s Senator Marsha Blackburn co-sponsorship of Tom Cotton’s (dropped) racist SECURE Act banning Chinese nationals from studying at US universities.
Some of the poorest parts of the central region are in the northeast of Middle Tennessee, historical Black communities that have experienced disenfranchisement across multiple generations. While the Black population has remained steady at a regional level, where they live is changing due to the push-out forces of development in the central Nashville city and Davidson County. Key historic neighborhoods in Davidson County saw a drop in Black populations closer to the central core, while pushing Black residents out to further North.
For example, census tracts right above Nashville’s Haynes Park saw a jump from 67.9% to 79.1% share from 2007-2011 to 2012-2016. During the same time period, closer to the metro areas spanning Germantown and Hope Gardens neighborhoods went from 60.4% Black to 38.4% Black (and with it, from 36.6% to 58.7% white). Several other central tracts saw these drops, while suburban/subrural regions have seen growing Black, API and Latinx populations.