On Monday, five women were honored in a ceremony at Elizabeth Park, located at the intersection of Arthur Avenue, Jane Street and 11th Avenue North, in the historically Black neighborhood of North Nashville. These women were pillars of their community, and artist M. Simone Boyd decided it was high time to recognize them.
Simone started this project in 2018, in response to a tragedy in her neighborhood. It began with a single mosaic — a portrait of civil rights leader Curlie McGruder, made from hundreds of small wood squares created in partnership with local business Maple Built.
Curlie McGruder raised money to bail out protesters during the civil rights era, and eventually led the NAACP. Now, her mosaic is no longer alone. She has been joined by four other mosaics, all representing women from North Nashville: Nora Evelyn Ransom, Mary Louise Watson, Juno Frankie Pierce and Willie Mae “Momma” Boddie.
This Thursday, four descendants joined host Khalil Ekulona on WPLN’s daily show This Is Nashville and shared some of their memories.
Willie Mae “Momma” Boddie was famous for her home-cooked meals, and for handing out popsicles in the summer. But that wasn’t all.
“She took care of everybody,” says her daughter, Rev. Margreat Smithson, who still lives in the neighborhood. “Mother would keep kids whether you could afford to give her something or not. She babysat those kids.”
“Her thing was love the kids, you raise them right. And she was a praying woman. So she prayed for not only her kids, but the other kids in the neighborhood. I told Simone: My mother, along with the neighbors, they were like neighborhood watch, before there was a neighborhood watch.”
Leitha Carter remembers her mother, Mary Louise Watson.
“She was quiet-spoken, tall, very determined,” Leitha says. “And she wouldn’t call herself a fierce leader. She would say she was doing what she needed to do for her family.”
What she needed to do was anything but easy. Mary Louise Watson helped integrate Nashville schools in the 1950s. Her daughter Barbara Watson was just six years old at the time, and she went to one of those schools.
“It was hell,” Barbara says with a laugh. “I’m not going to put it any other way. … They threatened to kidnap me. They threatened to kill me. And back during that time, they were still hanging people and kidnapping and killing people.”
“It was awful,” her sister Leitha adds.
The family received threatening phone calls constantly. One night, a car full of white men pulled up, and then — as the girls ran screaming back to the house — they firebombed the yard.
Did that deter Ms. Watson? Neither Barbara nor Leitha hesitates: No.
“Nor my father,” Leitha says. “They were determined. We’re going to go forward with this.”
Determination. It’s a common theme among these women, and the homes they each made for their community.
“Everyone would gather over my grandmother’s house, and we would go to Jones School to vote,” says Alisha Haddock. “Now, remember, this is when I was a child and I couldn’t vote. .. it was almost like a rite of passage of the younger group of us. We couldn’t wait until it was our time to vote because it was held so special in our family’s life.
Alisha Haddock’s grandmother, Nora Evelyn Ransom, also worked in health care, and led the North Nashville Social Club.
“To have the five women on the murals, you know, really memorializing them and what they’ve done is so pivotal today because everyone is coming from a different perspective, each woman, each family, but we are held together by the struggles of our community,” Alisha says. “And then also, you know, the descendants are still here, and we’re still keeping their legacies alive.”