Thaxton Waters II was born and raised in North Nashville. The neighborhood is home to a traditionally African-American community that grew out of a cluster of three Historical Black Colleges and Universities that defined the place in the years following the Civil War: Fisk University, Tennessee State University, and MeHarry Medical College, along with the American Baptist College, which is descended from Roger Williams University, which – like the HBCU’s – was founded to educate freed slaves. Waters graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in biology, and he’s the Art Gallery Coordinator at the Main Nashville Public Library.
Waters is one of North Nashville’s biggest boosters. I met with him recently at his Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge, a vibrant space that, due to his building being sold, will shutter permanently tonight after a party. Our conversation found the artist discussing history, musicology, geography, scholarship, civil rights, and gentrification in long rants that are both politely pedantic and infectiously enthusiastic. Waters’ polymath tendencies are reflected in space at Art History Class which is tucked into a crumbling brick building next to a barbershop on Jefferson Street in the heart of North Nashville. Art History Class housed a vinyl record library, a reading library featuring African American scholars from North Nashville as well as wider writings from black civil rights leaders like Malcolm X, and a whole collection of books by Booker T. Washington. A small bar has serviced various art openings and events, and the walls are covered in art and vintage boxing photographs. Waters started his first community space, Hebroots, in 2007.
“That was a play on words about Eastern people in the Western world,” says Waters. “Hebroots was Timberlands, tunics and turbans.” The space was a t-shirt and knickknack store where Waters held vinyl listening parties. “MC’s would be freestyling and we’d have people break dancing. I just happened to open it when the economy was at its worst. It was like releasing a critically acclaimed album but the sales sucked.”
After Hebroots closed its doors in 2010 Waters started painting. His father was an artist and Waters had always made art, but hadn’t pursued it professionally. He painted likenesses of black cultural heroes and pop stars before selling his work up and down Jefferson Street. He made a name in the neighborhood and he paid some bills.
“I’d paint whatever anybody wanted. I was trying to feed my family,” he says.
Waters’s paintings are primarily inspired by Black Panther Party illustrator Emory Douglas. Douglas’s iconic work became the visual brand of the Black Panthers, and his poster portrayals of the poor and disenfranchised as fierce revolutionary heroes are emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s
“My work is concerned with my people and their struggles,” says Waters. “I was already telling the story of the Historical Black Colleges and Universities, but I wanted to tell the history of the neighborhood itself. Right after the Civil War this community started, and they started all over the South wherever you find HBCUs. But the stories in all these communities are the same: they blossomed, they were destroyed, and now they’re being gentrified.”
North Nashville was home to Sulphur Dell – the city’s original minor league baseball park. And Jefferson Street was once jammed with jazz and blues clubs hosting players like B.B. King and a young Jimi Hendrix. But the neighborhood was decimated after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 awarded a contract for a leg of Interstate 40 to be built through Middle Tennessee. A spur of I-40 was run through the heart of North Nashville, gouging out homes and businesses, and chopping the neighborhood in half. For decades property values dropped, and crime went up, but now developers and wealthy buyers are redefining the place.
In 2013 Waters launched Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge and Gallery on Jefferson street a just blocks from I-40.
“This space was modelled on what Booker T. Washington did at Tuskegee. He knew to go into that community for the assistance and the resources he needed – he made those people a part of that project,” says Waters. “He did it with agriculture and labor, but I’m doing it with the arts.”
Art History Class hosted a variety evens for Nashville’s art scene and his North Nashville neighbors, but the Wine and Whiskey Social after parties following Nashville’s monthly First Saturday Art Crawl events have been a favorite.
“That’s my chance to get my messages out and tell people about North Nashville. It also gives me a chance to put my artists on a platform.” Waters shows work by current students and alumni from the neighborhood’s universities as well as work by artists connected with HBCU’s around the region.
Second Sunday Soul Cinema happenings were typical of Waters’ promotional events which provided an entertaining community gathering that was also educational and inspiring. Recently Waters screened Wattstax – the 1973 music documentary capturing the 1972 benefit concert organized by Stax Records to celebrate the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles which was then still struggling in the aftermath of its historic 1965 riots. The film features appearances by a young Richard Pryor and concert footage of performers like the Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes. The film also captures the self-reliance messages of the Black Power Movement which was sparked to life by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Jesse Jackson’s “I Am Somebody” speech opens the concert equating community and power in the intense, flat radical tone of the time.
But as of the middle of July Art History’s headquarters on Jefferson Street was sold, and Waters held his last neighborhood party in the space on July 29 before closing. Waters knew a sale was in the offing and he’s already making plans for the next iteration. Until then, Art History Class will hold pop-up events at spaces along Jefferson Avenue, and Waters recently launched a Go Fund Me campaign to secure a new home for Art History Class’s ongoing community programming.
“I want this community to see the importance of third spaces,” says Waters. “I’m trying to be a living museum that’s also a third space for people to meet and talk and relax.” And – of course – learn something.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.