Athens of the New South

College Life and the Making of Modern Nashville

  • Author(s): Pethel, Mary Ellen
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2017-06-15
  • Status: Active
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“A diverse and vibrant collection of colleges and universities has always set Nashville apart from other southern cities. I’m excited to see Mary Ellen Pethel exploring the history of a force for good that continues to inspire and shape our city.”—Meagan Barry, Mayor of Nashville

“The DNA of Nashville as it exists today was first formed in the decades following the Civil War. Mary Ellen Pethel begins at this critical moment in Nashville’s history and examines the evolution of college and city life. Commerce and local collegiate institutions have long been partners in shaping our city, and Athens of the New South is timely reminder of that great history.”—Ralph Schulz, President of Nashville Chamber of Commerce

In 2013, the New York Times identified Nashville as America’s “it” city—a leading hub of music, culture, technology, food, and business. But long before, the Tennessee capital was known as the “Athens of the South,” as a reflection of the city’s reputation for and investment in its institutions of higher education, which especially blossomed after the end of the Civil War and through the New South Era from 1865 to 1930.

This wide-ranging book chronicles the founding and growth of Nashville’s institutions of higher education and their impressive impact on the city, region, and nation at large. Local colleges and universities also heavily influenced Nashville’s brand of modernity as evidenced by the construction of a Parthenon replica, the centerpiece of the 1897 Centennial Exposition. By the turn of the twentieth century, Vanderbilt University had become one of the country’s premier private schools, while nearby Peabody College was a leading teacher-training institution. Across the racial divide—Fisk University joined the ranks of the nation’s most prestigious black liberal-arts universities, while Meharry Medical College emerged as one of the country’s few training centers for African American medical professionals. Following the agricultural-industrial model, Tennessee A&I became the state’s first black public college. Meanwhile, various other schools— Ward-Belmont, a junior college for women; David Lipscomb College, the instructional arm of the Church of Christ; and Roger Williams University, which trained black men and women as teachers and preachers—made important contributions to the higher educational landscape. In sum, Nashville was distinguished not only by the quantity of its schools but by their quality.

Linking these institutions to the progressive and educational reforms of the era, Mary Ellen Pethel also explores their impact in shaping Nashville’s expansion, on changing gender roles, and on leisure activity in the city, which included the rise and popularity of collegiate sports. In her conclusion, she shows that Nashville’s present-day reputation as a dynamic place to live, learn, and work is due in no small part to the role that higher education continues to play in the city’s growth and development.

MARY ELLEN PETHEL is the archivist and a member of the Social Science Department at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville. At Belmont University, also in Nashville, Dr. Pethel is a Global Leadership Studies Fellow and teaches in the Honors Department.