A Short History of Edgehill
Michelle Ness, intern for the Metro Historical Commission
The history of Edgehill can be traced back to the estate of Robert Brownlee Currey. Currey, who was postmaster and mayor of Nashville in the early 1820s, had a mansion where Rose Park now stands. A few others followed suit and settled nearby. The hill, renamed Currey Hill after the house burned down and the postmaster moved away, would play an important role in the neighborhood’s history.1
The small settlement at Currey Hill grew into an actual neighborhood as a byproduct of the Civil War. Two forgotten forts were constructed in the area to work in tandem with Fort Negley; Fort Morton was atop Currey Hill and Fort Casino was built at the current site of the 8th Street Reservoir.2 The area between these two forts was set up by Union forces as a contraband camp for fugitive slaves from the south in 1864. Many of the fugitive slaves, along with the slaves and freedmen who built and helped defend all three forts, stayed in the area after the war to form a predominately black community in Edgehill.3
West Edgehill consists almost entirely of single family detached homes, many of which still exist. The area around Villa Place was developed from 1890 to 1930 and was home to professionals who found the area appealing due to a new streetcar line they could use to commute downtown. Originally founded as a white community, demographics drastically changed in the 1910s.4 The rising popularity of the automobile drove the white flight to the suburbs, abandoning the area. In 1912 alone, there were 75 lots for sale in Edgehill. However, a flux of African Americans from Belle Meade and the beginning of the Black Migration from the south quickly filled the void. Black professionals moved into Villa Place and continued developing the area. With doctors and lawyers living on the west end and locally-owned commercial businesses on the other, Edgehill was a thriving, self-sufficient African American community.5
Rather than living independently from the rest of Nashville, the citizens of Edgehill used their success to give back to the African American community as a whole. Two prominent African American residents of Edgehill were William Edmonson, who in 1937 became the first African American to have their own show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and MG Blakemore, a member of Tennessee House of Representatives during the Civil Rights Movement. The Edgehill United Methodist Church and its pastor, Bill Barnes, were also great advocates in the city during the Civil Rights Movement. Edgehill also became the place to stay for traveling African Americans. Even some famous musicians who were welcomed by the city to play concerts were unable to stay in the segregated hotels downtown. Instead, rooming houses in Edgehill welcomed tourists and artists.6
Businesses in Edgehill were primarily in the commercial district along 12th Avenue South. However, a few exceptions rose to notoriety. White Way Laundry, for one, was a very important part of the community. Located at 1201 Villa Place, the cleaning service was founded in 1931 by W.H. Elam and his sons, Nelson and Ira. Three generations would own this family-run business before it closed in 2002. White Way was one of the largest employers in the neighborhood, having several hundred employees at its peak. During World War II, the government called upon White Way to help in the war effort. As per their request, White Way Cleaners stayed open 24/7 for the next several years. During the day business would continue as usual, but after hours the cleaners would wash bed linens and uniforms for the troops overseas.7 Rather than have a piece of Edgehill history destroyed, White Way Laundry was converted in 2007 into a series of local businesses known as Edgehill Village.8
The most famous local landmark is the polar bear statues. These fun statues were originally a set of four that depict polar bears mid-snowball fight. They were commissioned in the 1930s by the Polar Bear Frozen Custard Shop who used them for advertising. They have had several homes in Edgefield since the custard shop closed after WWII, including a resident’s front yard and outside a funeral home. Two of the statues have since been moved to Germantown9 and the other two have been given a permanent residence at the corner 12th Avenue South and Edgehill Avenue known as Polar Bear Plaza.10
Edgehill started to decline in the mid-20th century. Many of the prominent families moved away as Music Row expanded and started encroaching on the edges of the neighborhood. Urban renewal had a negative effect on the neighborhood as well. I-65 and I-40 became two of the new boundaries of Edgehill. Most of the historic local businesses in east Edgehill were torn down to allow 12th Avenue South to become a wider through street rather than an area with a lot of foot traffic. Much of the street grid was altered as numerous cul de sacs were put in. All of this caused the neighborhood to become more secluded with only a few main arteries in and out. In recent years, attempts have been made to revitalize the eastern half of Edgehill and bring back a lot of business. Despite predictions in the 1950s, the western half of the neighborhood around Villa Place has remained relatively untouched by both Music Row and Urban Renewal.11
1 W.W. Clayton, Davidson County, Tennessee, (Nashville: Charles Elder, 1971), 204.
2 Nashville Civic Design Center Report, 2003.
3 Bobby Lovett, The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee 1780-1930, (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1999), 54.
4 Nashville Civic Design Center Report.
5 Lovett, 89-91.
6 Nashville Civic Design Center Report.
7 Dan Murphy, “Change Nothing New for White Way,” Nashville City Paper, 2000.
8 Edgehill Village, http://www.edgehillvillage.com.
9 Nashville Civic Design Center Report.
10 Amber North, “Polar bears provide taste of Artic in August,” The Tennessean, August 4, 2005.
11 Nashville Civic Design Center Report.
Clayton, W.W. Davidson County, Tennessee. Nashville: Charles Elder, 1971.
Edgehill Village. Accessed January 12, 2015. http://www.edgehillvillage.com
Lovett, Bobby L. The African-American History of Nashville: 1780-1930. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
Murphy, Dan. “Change Nothing New for White Way.” Nashville City Paper. 2000.
Nashville Civic Design Center Report: Edgehill. 2003.
North, Amber. “Polar bears provide taste of Arctic in August.” The Tennessean. August 4, 2005.