'Witness Walls' tell Nashville's civil rights story

May 02 2017
Posted by: Staff
'Witness Walls' tell Nashville's civil rights story

By: Ashley Heeney

It was standing room only April 21 for the debut and dedication of Walter Hood’s new public art project for the city of Nashville.

Witness Walls is a commemorative sculpture celebrating the civil rights movement in Nashville during the 1950s and 1960s. After public school desegregation began in 1957, students from the city's predominantly black universities led the way in nonviolent protest with diner sit-ins and participation in Freedom Rides. 

About 250 attended the ceremony, which was indoors in Metro Council Chambers due to rain.

Hood, along with Mayor Megan Barry and Metro Arts Director Jennifer Cole shared remarks. Rev. Dr. Kelly Miller Smith Jr. gave the invocation. Dr. Matthew Walker III, son of Freedom Rider Matthew Walker Sr., gave remarks honoring Nashville's civil rights veterans. Pastor Ernest "Tex" Thomas closed with prayer.

The Metro Arts Commission hired Hood, a Berkley, Calif.,  area artist and landscape architect whose sculptural work appears in cities across the country, to create the piece. Hood’s work often represents themes of social justice.

Photo: Stacey Irvin 

“This project came about after several of the original Freedom Riders from Nashville approached the city about honoring Nashville’s sometimes-forgotten civil rights past,” said Anne-Leslie Owens, public art project manager for the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. “They pointed to Nashville’s leading role as the first Southern city to integrate its public lunch counters and to the Nashville students responsible for bravely continuing the Freedom Rides,” she said.

“We worked closely with the staff of the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room and civil rights veterans who have provided valuable feedback to Mr. Hood,” Owens added.

Located on the west side of the Metro Nashville Courthouse, Witness Walls is steps away from the site of the silent march that took place on April 19, 1960, in which Mayor Ben West declared that lunch counters should not be segregated. 

While there are buildings and markers representing key civil rights moments in Nashville, Hood’s work is the city’s first public artist piece.

Unlike traditional large historical displays, Witness Walls isn’t a chronological visual lesson. Similar to Classical-era friezes, Hood weaved together on concrete walls a juxtaposition of images of music of the period with emotionally expressive people marching, protesting and walking to school. 

In addition to honoring the people who fought for racial equality in the city, one goal of the project is to continue the open dialogue about social justice and equity in the community.

In support of Witness Walls, Metro Arts and One Voice Nashville launched a podcast series, “My Witness,” in which Metro high school students interviewed civil rights veterans. They are available, along with lesson plans for teachers related to the topic, on the website  

Cover photo credit: Jen Cole 

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