Black Tennessee Voices Live, held on Sept. 20, featured first-hand accounts from Black Tennesseans sharing their experiences of grief, resilience, love and community. A full audience in the Roots Theater at the National Museum of African American Music, along with the six presenters waiting in the wings to share their experiences, was the materialization of a year-long undertaking by BTV Live co-organizer and reporter for The Tennessean Lebron Hill.
“Tonight is not going to be a TED Talk,” Hill said. “It’s not going to be a toast masters or ‘how to’ talk. Tonight is about storytelling. That’s how community change happens.”
The youngest speaker in the group was Belmont senior Politics and Public Law major Keidron Turner who began by polling the audience, asking for a show of hands from those familiar with his hometown of Pulaski, Tennessee. “If you don’t know, Pulaski’s big moment in Tennessee history, and national history, is that it’s known for being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan in America,” he said.
The 21-year-old shared that he has become familiar with getting mysterious looks from strangers who know the history of Pulaski when he says where he is from. He has learned the art of lacing the dark history of his hometown with clever, careful humor. “I honestly think they are more shocked that there’s a Black person who comes from a place like that,” he jokingly confessed.
The history of Pulaski as the origin of the KKK isn’t what brought Turner to the Black Tennessee Voice Live stage. “It’s actually a more recent history that I struggle with every single time I have to go back to Pulaski and see it,” he said. “It’s the story of Sam Davis, and how Pulaski forces me to honor him.”
Sam Davis was a volunteer Confederate spy from Smyrna, Tennessee who was captured and hanged in Pulaski. The town has been covered with his story. A statue of Davis is in the middle of the town square, and a football stadium, park, city street and museum are all dedicated in his honor.
“Learning and hearing about this boy-hero of the Confederacy became constant within my childhood and education,” Turner said. “As a Black southerner, Pulaski forces me to believe that the soldier who volunteered and fought and died to keep my family, my ancestors and people like me in slavery is the American hero I should aspire to be.”
The commonplace of the Confederate hero confused Turner’s childhood as he often questioned the premise of the Civil War, Confederate symbols and the definition of southern culture, but his questions were often dismissed from his classmates, teachers and friends. “I went throughout high school without questioning the impact these symbols had on young people. That didn’t really change until I got out of Pulaski,” he said.
The year after he enrolled at Belmont the pandemic began, and the death of George Floyd headlined the nation. “As a Black southerner who already feared for his life in the wake of COVID-19, I was absolutely furious that something like a global pandemic couldn’t stop something like police brutality for more than two months,” he said.
He attributes learning to think critically during this time to his Southern Politics course taught by Belmont Political Science Professor and Department Chair Dr. Vaughn May. The class highlighted racial inequality and identified the conflict that exists around racial injustice in the South.
Keidron’s indignation prompted him to publish a YouTube petition that called for deliberate changes in Pulaski, namely relocating the Sam Davis statue from Pulaski’s square to the Sam Davis Museum. “I have never seen so much hate and anger and disgust from Pulaski until I pressed the publish button on that video,” he said.
He set out to take a stand against racism by organizing an equality march in Pulaski. On August 15, 2020, Turner, along with his co-organizers Richard Kemp, Kelly Hamlin, Benita and Destiny Cross and Lauren Masters, met about 100 supporters on the Pulaski square for an equality march.
“I felt like the march in Pulaski could do something more,” he said. “It could work to address something more. Something else that covers up the history of Black progress other than police brutality and violence.”
From receiving sinister online comments to a crowd of counter-protesters showing up with rifles and tactical gear on the day of the march, Turner and his co-organizers experienced expected and unexpected backlash. “It was as if Pulaski was willing to bring back the Klan in this idea of intimidation in order to make sure a statue that shows people like me of our low place in society stays in Pulaski.”
Indirect blossoms continue to sprout from the seeds of change left by the equality march although the statute remains today. “It did something far greater than I ever expected,” Turner said. “What it did was start a conversation in Pulaski about change. A conversation I didn’t know was possible.”
Since Turner’s march, Pulaski revealed a plaque honoring a famous Black sports announcer at Sam Davis Park and created an advisory council to recognize and honor the underrepresented history of underrepresented groups, beginning with honoring the U.S. Colored troops of Pulaski. “They are now trying to have a real conversation about the history that things like Sam Davis and confederate symbols cover up,” Turner said.
This summer, Pulaski revealed a plaque honoring the first Black elected official of Pulaski. All these changes were set in motion by Turner and his co-organizer’s actions and provide a wider array of education. Turner concluded, “I know in my heart that Pulaski will recognize that the Sam Davis statue and its story needs to come down as soon as the town known for hate realizes how much hate remains in the town in symbols like that.”
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