The Taylors and Greenwood Park

The people, the community and the streets that surround us, they fill the timeline of our lives with joy, with vitality, with LIFE. Little pieces of everyone’s story are left behind with the people and the places that surrounded them. Josie’s story isn’t complete without investigating the people who said “Hello Dr. Wells” as she passed them, who congratulated her successes, the people who hugged her close when her mother died. Without an illustration and understanding of the streets she walked and the people and homes she visited, her story would lack vitality. Josie navigated a world of intelligent hard working people who were trying to improve the world around them, to improve their community. Mr. and Mrs. Preston Taylor are two characters in Josie’s life, her story, that simply cannot be left out.

Preston and Georgia Gordon Taylor were without a doubt one of the most powerful Black couples in Nashville in the early 20th Century. Contemporary newspapers referred to Preston Taylor as the wealthiest Black man in the country. His achievements so numerous it is impossible to list them all. His business, religious and political successes equaled and exceeded most men, both Black and White. He was a former slave whose parents, Zed and Betty Taylor, moved to Kentucky from Louisiana when he was quite young. He rose from slavery to a become a motivating speaker, minister, political leader, businessman, no….more than a businessman….business mogel, CEO, and honestly to become a leader for his community in every way. He built railroads, banks, businesses, churches and parks. One article referenced Preston’s very obvious light skin and said “Though he resembles a Spaniard,and could easily cast aside his people and be classed with the noble 400, no such idea ever entered his mind. He is an enthusiastic lover of his race.” (Freeman, Indianapolis, IN, 1896) It says so much about Preston Taylor that he could have chosen an easy alternative. Being White was easier than being Black, but he chose Black. He chose to be a leader. He chose to contribute and improve the world around him. It is no wonder he was a part of Josie’s inner circle.

Preston Taylor inspired people. But I’m gonna be real here, Preston Taylor had a reputation as a ladies man. He was indeed a fine looking man. We are talking movie star handsome. The ladies LIKED Preston Taylor and he liked the ladies. Preston was married at least three times and had a daughter Hattie with a woman named Anna Hoffman, who may or may not have been his wife. Did I mention he was a minister?? He was. I’m not saying he was the best minister in the history of the world, but he preached the gospel on a regular basis and the ladies liked what he was preachin.

Handsome Preston Taylor’s military photo. (she types with a sigh)
“Little did the parents of infant Preston think that some day he would me more honored than the proprietor of their flesh.” (Freeman, Indianapolis, IN, 1896)

Preston’s second wife, Georgia Minor Gordon, was an influential figure in her own right. In fact Georgia’s presence was more beloved than that of her husbands on a global scale. Georgia was known throughout the world, had in fact met Queen Victoria and performed for her as a member of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. She helped set in motion a movement, introducing the United States and then the World to slave spirituals. She and her Fisk compatriots showed the world the strength of Black perseverance through music.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers

Georgia herself, although born in 1855, was never enslaved. She descended from bold forward thinking individuals. Her mother, and her grandparents were free born. Her grandfather Duke Wilson was a Black man, a fiddler, who married a White woman. Take a moment to consider how incredibly brave Duke and his wife must have been to be an openly interracial couple at this time in history, not only interracial, but a White woman and a Black man. They had several children, Georgia’s mother Mercy being one of them. Mercy grew into an independent self sufficient woman, a seamstress. In 1860 the Federal Slave Census listed her as renting one male slave, whose age fit the description of George Gordon, Georgia’s father. Every clue indicates that Mercy was paying George’s owner a rental fee and that he was living with her and their children. Georgia, her brother Governor and their cousins attended Fisk University in its infancy. Georgia continued to follow the bold footsteps of her ancestors. On top of being talented and bold, Georgia was kind-hearted, gentle and stunningly beautiful. It is quite easy to understand how she caught the eye of Preston Taylor.

The Taylors were a powerhouse couple setting society ablaze. It is wildly appropriate that they built the nicest events venue for their time. Preston Taylor set aside forty acres of land that he, as an undertaker genius businessman, had purchased to be used as a burial grounds for Blacks, Greenwood Cemetery. The separate forty acres became Greenwood Park. Descriptions of Greenwood sound idyllic. “Greenwood Park is a place for the pleasure of colored people only. The appointments are convenient, the spot ideal, and all the facilities usually employed in parks for the pleasure and amusement of its patrons are to be found here.” (pg.222 All about Nashville, a complete historical guidebook…) Greenwood sported a grandstand, a pool, a merry-go-round and even a zoo! Most importantly Greenwood did not have signs indicating “No Negroes allowed.” Every acre of the park was accessible.

Greenwood was a general venue for Black entertainment in the early 20th Century: concerts, fairs, barbecues, sporting events, revivals, parades, holiday celebrations, etc all being held at the park. Josie absolutely sat in the the grandstand cheering on one event or another. There are accounts of her attending Easter Egg Hunts and the colored fair. She would have been familiar with the paths at Greenwood quite well.

Greenwood was not built without a fight. Initially the city tried to halt its opening, passing city ordinances in the middle of the night to inhibit parks being built near any cemeteries. This rule didn’t impact any White parks in the city of Nashville, the only park impacted was Greenwood. When the park was opened, it took Preston much wheeling and dealing to get public transportation to convey visitors even close to the park. Mothers and their children would be left blocks from the park waiting for another train that never showed. Resistance to Greenwood was strong and even turned violent. Twice the park became prey to suspicious fires.The grandstand was destroyed in one such fire, but people still came and Greenwood thrived.

Georgia, along with Josie, was deeply entrenched in the “Club Society” that Black woman had built in the early 20th Century. Black woman created clubs that sought to solve the major problems Black families had in society: socially, politically and religiously. Most especially issues that impacted families, although they were extremely successful in solving problems of all sorts from hunger and child care to voting rights for women. Club women organized, simplified issues and solved them. They raised money with what seemed enviable ease. To use simple modern vernacular: they kicked butt. These clubs were so productive and successful they caught the attention of White suffrage leaders, who realized Black women were a force to be reckoned with and they needed their help to get the vote. Black women and White women worked together to achieve a common objective: suffrage.

The friendship Josie had with Georgia was quite close. There was a group of five ladies who were in a very tight circle: Dr. Josie Wells, Georgia Taylor, Nettie Napier, Minnie Crosthwait and Mattie Scott. All of these ladies were quite motivated “club” women. All four of her friends were married to highly successful men. Josie was the only one to be single and have an occupation, which I do believe would have been an interesting dichotomy to see. I love the fact that Josie and her friends traveled together. Some of my favorite adventures have been girls trips, exploring the world. In 1910 Josie and Georgia went to D.C. for several weeks together, most likely visiting and staying with Nettie Napier, whose husband was U.S. Treasurer, Hon. J.C. Napier. With Mattie Scott, she visited and stayed with Mattie’s mother. These ladies attended parties, teas and lectures. They were a force to be reckoned with.

Georgia lived an impressive life. However, her life was not without sadness. She had only one child, a son, named Preston Gordon Taylor. He died at only seven months old from diarrhea, June 8, 1891. Minnie’s husband Dr. Scott Crosthwait was the signing physician on the death certificate. She had no other children and one account indicated her lingering sadness. Georgia suffered from kidney disease and suffered for almost nine months, under the care of the best doctor available, Dr. J. E. Wells. Josie was with her friend Georgia at 5 A.M. when she passed on June 7, 1913. Her name listed as the tending physician. My heart hurts for the sadness Josie must have encountered. She not only lost a patient that she was treating, she lost a truly loved friend. Her heart must have been broken.

Death Certificate of Georgia Minor Gordon Taylor, Josie’s friend.

I was reminded today, as I was writing this post that people become better versions of themselves when they surround themselves with greatness. People who inspire us to be the best “us” we can be. Josie was surrounded by the best people. People who inspired her and who were inspired by her.

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