How Franklin’s Historic African-American Neighborhood Is Slowly Disappearing | Nashville Public Radio

How Franklin’s Historic African-American Neighborhood Is Slowly Disappearing

Jun 5, 2019

Franklin is known for expensive homes and its Civil War history — like the historic Carter House, a major tourist attraction where the Battle of Franklin was fought.

But right down the street lies the birthplace of the city’s African-American heritage. And as home prices skyrocket in Williamson County, this once-prominent African-American neighborhood is slowly disappearing.

Natchez Street, along with the surrounding neighborhood, was once the pulse of the city’s black community, a few blocks from downtown Franklin.

“Up and down Natchez, it’s been a lot of changes,” says Barbara Sparkman, who has called Natchez Street home for the last 23 years.

Sparkman's house is tucked away from the street, leaving room for a huge front yard, where her family parks when visiting. She says she loves her neighborhood but can sense the inevitable changes: She often gets invitations from developers to sell her home.

Sparkman says she would always tell them no, but they would ask again: “Well, maybe in a year or two, you’ll want to sell it?”

Sparkman gives them the same answer every time they call: “Nope, I don’t think so," she says. "I intend on being here until the Father comes.”

A Nationally Recognized History 

Both Franklin officials and community members say there's little chance anything will be done to help protect it from development.

For one thing, most residents in the neighborhood don’t own their homes like Sparkman does. Many of Natchez’s longtime residents have died, leaving historic homes to friends and family members who don’t live in the area. And many of those property owners are selling to developers.

Which is why, walking through the neighborhood, you might see an original home worth $200,000 to $300,000 sitting in front of a new building selling for three times that. This increase in property value can lead to higher property taxes, making it difficult for longtime residents to afford their homes.

For another, many residents are unaware of the historic value of their community.

During the Civil War, the 24-acres of land known as the Natchez community was the home to slaves. A few of them even worked for the Carter House up the street.

After the war ended, Natchez became a settlement for freed slaves who structured a thriving neighborhood for themselves.

“At one time, Natchez Street was kind of a self-contained community because you had a grocery store here, you had businesses,” says Kevin Riggs, the pastor of Franklin Community Church.  “So an African American could grow up in Franklin, get a good education, and more than likely get a job — get a good-paying job — and all stay in the community.”

A historical marker for the Natchez Street Community lists off some of the former local businesses. The area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
Credit Alana Watson / WPLN

Riggs spends a lot of time on Natchez Street and is a vocal advocates for its residents. He believes the street’s rich history should be remembered as prominently as the nearby Carter House.

The neighborhood once housed a lumber mill, tobacco warehouse, a colored high school and many other African American-owned businesses. Several bungalow-style homes still have their original brick and stone from the late 1800s. In 2003, the neighborhood landed a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

But in recent years, Riggs says, the fabric of the neighborhood has changed drastically.

“This community has this incredible history, and when it gets gentrified the history’s gone. There will be no one on that street who knows that story,” Riggs explains.

Struggle For A Historical Overlay  

Ken Moore, the mayor of Franklin, says officials can't do much to halt gentrification without a historical overlay, which would protect the architectural integrity of older houses.

Moore believes that change could help keep affordable homes in the neighborhood from being demolished by developers.

“I think it’s very important that we work to protect that area,” he says.

This has been a challenge, says Franklin Alderman Pearl Bransford. She says she’s gone door to door encouraging residents to put an overlay in place. The neighborhood has even held community meetings, but Bransford says she's struggled to help property owners understand why it's important. They could never get property owners to pass one.

“We have to learn and understand that this is a significant area, guys," She says. "Do you guys realize what you have here? This is really a historic area, a historic neighborhood, and it has significance to the city."

But even if residents were to approve an overlay, Riggs, the pastor, isn't as optimistic as city officials about the outcome.

He says the homes may be protected, but they will still be sold, remodeled and put back on the market at a prime rate: Gentrification would still be an issue.

“It’s going to increase the money per square foot that that house cost,” Riggs says. "Gentrification still going to continue, but it’s just going to be more historical-looking homes."

To Riggs, the only real solution is for people who care about the area, like him, to step in and help. Riggs founded an organization called the Franklin Community House that buys old homes and renovates them, making them affordable housing for residents. But it's a slow process: So far, they've converted one property into three apartments and a group home.

In the meantime, the neighborhood is still changing quickly. AndSparkman, the longtime resident, says acknowledging Natchez Street’s history doesn’t seem to stop it.

"A lot of times people stop and read those signs, those land markers,” she says. “I still get the calls now to sell, but nah. It’s not a good feeling, it’s not.”

She fears that it won’t be long until there are no familiar faces on her street.