David Ewing would like to clarify something:
Nashville’s turn as the “It City” happened long before the New York Times dubbed us that in 2013.
In fact, the first time we were “it” was many years ago — 119 to be exact.
“In 1897, Nashville hosted the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, a six-month long world’s fair commemorating the state’s 100th birthday,” explains Ewing, smiling and leaning forward, sinking into the familiar rhythm of a seasoned storyteller.
“We were feeling good about ourselves after 100 years; we’d elected three presidents from Tennessee, and after the Civil War, we needed an economic boost. It was unusual at the time for a city of our size to host a world’s fair, and this was before cars and airplanes, so no one knew how many people would come — but 1.8 million people showed up, including Booker T. Washington and President William McKinley.
“We were on the front page of every newspaper in the country, and lot of businesses started here because of that.
“It put us on the map, and that was the first time we were the ‘It City.’”
[Find details about the Centennial Exposition at the bottom of the page.]
Creating a narrative out of the thousands of facts he knows comes so naturally to Ewing, it’s easy to forget his first profession is lawyer, not historian, which is often the role you’ll find him playing today.
But even his predilection for the law is something out of the history books.
Ewing was just two years old when his father, a surgeon at Meharry Medical College, died, so he’d always had questions about where he came from. Soon after graduating from Vanderbilt Law, he got invited to a family reunion in Hermitage.
“I met so many relatives I didn’t know, and that experience sparked something in me, and I started doing research,” he says.
“I found out that Prince Albert Ewing, my great great grandfather, was Nashville’s first black lawyer, and a six-time judge.”
“His twin brother, Taylor G. Ewing, Sr., was also a lawyer in Nashville, and his son was a lawyer in Mississippi. I thought I was the first lawyer in my family — not even close!
“If I’d looked through some of the books at Vanderbilt Law, I would’ve seen my family’s names.”
A virtual museum for Music City
It seems almost fated now that Ewing, a ninth generation Nashvillian, would come to be one of the city’s most popular historians. But really it was that desire to learn more about himself that led him to learn so much about Nashville.
He started going to estate sales and flea markets, picking up interesting things here and there. As his collection grew, so did his curiosity and expertise.
“By 2009, I had collected all this Nashville memorabilia, and social media was really coming on the scene,” he says. “I figured the best way for me to share my collection was to put it online.”
And so Ewing created The Nashville I Wish I Knew, a website-turned-Facebook-and-Instagram account that focuses on showing people things they can’t find online, or really anywhere else, and gives them the background to go with them. He has more than 14,000 followers.
“When you collect memorabilia of the city, things overlap in great ways,” says Ewing.
“A family name, a business, the anniversary of this place or that — there are so many stories that never got told, but we can figure them out by looking at the things that remain. We get to fill in the gaps. That’s why I enjoy collecting history: Every item tells a story.”
If you’ve seen Ewing’s posts, you know those stories are far flung, geographically, topically and temporally.
A few recent favorites:
- A poker chip from the 1890s from the Climax Saloon on 4th Ave. Thousands of dollars were lost and won at the famous brothel every day, which was often raided by police only to be back in business a few hours later.
- A 1904 ad for Gerst Brewing Co. featuring the odd tagline “just as good as any.” Yazoo Brewing revived the Gerst beer brand in the early 2000s, which had been dormant since Prohibition.
- A key from the Hermitage Hotel from the 1920s.
- A program from Halloween 1930 for John Philip Sousa’s final performance at the Ryman. Sousa is best known for composing The Stars and Stripes Forever, the National March of the United States.
- A 1947 Halloween ad from Standard Candy Company’s (now Goo Goo Clusters) Belle Camp Chocolates.
- A 1959 poster for the original Rainbow Room offering up the services of Pixie Lynn, the “pistol packing cowgal exotic”.
- A notice from 1978 that the Station Inn was moving from West End to its current home on 12th Ave. South.
The list goes on, and with every post, Ewing paints a clearer picture of Nashville, past and present.
“When I find memorabilia that’s interesting, unique and rare — an article or artifact or a building that doesn’t exist anymore — I always learn something about Nashville I didn’t know,” says Ewing.
“We should do a better job of preserving our history, and this is a way to tell our stories and make sure they aren’t forgotten.”
Teaching at every turn
Ewing’s quest to know more, and share that knowledge with others is, like the law, a passion that has deep family roots. His mother was an educator for Metro Nashville, and his grandfather was a math teacher at Pearl High School for 30 years.
“Back when my grandfather taught, Pearl was the only high school for African-Americans in Nashville, so if you’re an African-American over 65 who went to high school here, you had my grandfather,” he says, smiling.
Ewing’s daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, followed in her family’s footsteps as an educator: she’s currently a Writer-in-Residence and professor of poetry and creative writing at Fisk University.
His wife, Alice Randall, is a songwriter (she co-wrote Trisha Yearwood’s No. 1 hit XXX’s and OOO’s) and author, best known for her novel The Wind Done Gone, an alternate version of Gone with the Wind told from the perspective of Cynara, a slave who is Scarlett O’Hara’s half-sister.
Randall is a Writer-in-Residence at Vanderbilt University, where she and Ewing have been living — yes living, as in on campus, in a dorm — for the past four years.
It’s part of Vanderbilt’s residential college system, something Harvard and Yale have been doing for hundreds of years.
“All the freshmen live in one part of campus with no upper classmen, and faculty and community members live with them, mentoring them and put on programming,” says Ewing.
“Often our programs include our friends, people like Renata Soto of Conexión Américas and politicians like Lamar Alexander, Jim Cooper and Mayor Megan Barry. So many colleges just throw you in a house your first year and you get lost. Mentoring students is a lot of work, sure, but it’s also extremely rewarding.”
And it seems to be working — a Princeton Review survey ranked Vanderbilt students the happiest in the country two out of the last three years.
What do you want to know?
Ewing has always been dedicated to education and development in Nashville.
It would be faster to list the boards he hasn’t served on than the ones he has (Cheekwood, the Middle Tennessee Boys & Girls Club, the Belcourt Theatre, etc.). He’s currently serving on the board of The Conservancy at the Parthenon, and when he gets the opportunity to stop by the place he’s so dedicated to preserving, he also happens to give the best tour in town.
“Hi, where are you from?” he asks, smiling warmly as he greets people walking around. In an instant, Ewing morphs from a lawyer in a suit, squeezing in another meeting in his already busy day, to Music City’s most earnest ambassador.
“Do you have any questions about Nashville? What do you want to know?”
People stop and listen.
“So the Parthenon was originally built for Tennessee’s 100th birthday celebration in 1897…”
And that’s all it takes — people who were moments ago focused only on getting the perfect selfie are hooked.
Ewing leads them on an impromptu journey through the Parthenon’s history right there on the steps.
When they leave, they’ve learned something about Nashville’s history, but more importantly, they’ve learned something about Nashville’s people, how they see this city and why they love it.
“The personality of our city is so important,” Ewing says.
“The biggest challenge we have right now is to keep what is unique and not tear down everything. We have to evolve, of course, but we can do it in a way that preserves what was great to begin with.
“Mostly, Nashville still needs to be a welcoming place for people who did not grow up here, and who are different from the old Southern people that were here 100 years ago.
“When you talk about thriving cities and cities people want to live in, it’s always about the people.
“The thing that makes Nashville relevant is you can still come here with a big idea, a big song, and a big dream — and you can make it.”