NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Calling it a way for his city to acknowledge, atone and seek reconciliation for slavery, Nashville Mayor David Briley announced plans Tuesday to replace an unused minor league baseball stadium with a park commemorating an adjacent Civil War fort built by slaves.
In his first major move as mayor, Briley said he’ll seek $1 million in city money to demolish Greer Stadium. The dilapidated, graffiti-ridden ballpark sits next to what remains of Fort Negley, which more than 2,700 African-Americans helped build after Union forces occupied Nashville in 1862. About 600 to 800 of them died.
Developers had planned to build a housing and entertainment complex where the 40-year-old stadium sits. That all changed in January, when results from a city-ordered archaeological study found that human remains are likely still buried there, possibly of slaves who built the fort.
Briley said he always had questions about those development plans. But it’s most important that the site will ultimately honor what it needs to honor, he added.
“Our country, our city has never really done what is necessary to acknowledge the sacrifice of the slaves in our country, to atone for what is and will be a great scar on our nation’s history, or to take steps toward reconciliation,” said Briley, who added that the park could help begin to accomplish those tasks.
Former Mayor Megan Barry had initially backed the development, but later said the likelihood of graves there meant the site should better honor the history of the people who built the fort.
Barry was under pressure from historical groups, the NAACP and park-space advocates, who waged a prolonged campaign against developing the land. They have seen this as their opportunity to reconnect the land to the fort as park space.
Briley replaced Barry last week after she pleaded guilty to felony theft stemming from an extramarital affair with her former bodyguard and resigned.
Musician Kix Brooks of the duo Brooks & Dunn is helping to raise money for the park. Briley has no firm timeline yet, other than seeking the demolition money in April from the city council.
Greer Stadium was home to Nashville’s minor league baseball club from 1978 until 2014, when the team moved to a new ballpark near downtown. The abandoned stadium sits where the fort’s black laborers toiled, lived and died a century and a half ago, and where 50 to 800 workers are thought to be buried.
After Confederate forces surrendered to Union soldiers in Nashville in 1862, the Union took more than 2,700 runaway slaves and freed black people from their homes and churches and forced them to work on the fort, where they lived in “contraband camps.” Although they were promised money for their labor, few were paid and many died.
The fort deteriorated over the years. The Works Progress Administration rebuilt it in 1936 and it reopened in 1938, but the fort fell into disrepair again. The Ku Klux Klan rallied there in the Jim Crow years, and segregated softball fields were later built nearby, said author Robert Hicks.
The park would be an even bigger win for historic preservationists, considering how the booming city is constantly being reshaped by new high-rises, apartment buildings and other development projects.
“As we grow as a community and add more density and more residents, this is a perfect opportunity for more green space,” Briley said.