If there was one couple in Nashville more powerful, prominent and well connected than the Taylors, it was James C. and Nettie Napier. James was a lawyer, a businessman, a banker and a politician. Nettie was a home maker and an advocate for social betterment. Together they worked to make the world around them a better place.
James Carroll and Nettie Langston Napier’s wedding, October 2, 1878, was steeped in the type of fairy tale details that would set a history lovers heart a flutter. They were married in Washington D.C. at the First Congregational Church by family friend, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah E. Rankin, a minister and abolitionist. Nettie’s luxurious wedding trousseau was made by Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Tod Lincoln’s seamstress. “The bride’s dress was of white tulle, with a white satin princess waist, and trimmed with a profusion of flowers.”(1) The reception, for 500 of the Nation’s finest, was held at her parents home, Hillside Cottage, near Howard University. Attending were men such as Joseph Rainey and P.B.S. Pinchback, trailblazers in Reconstruction politics.
Politics and and politicians were a staple in Nettie’s childhood. Nettie was born free in Ohio to John Mercer and Caroline Wall Langston in 1861, the dawn of Civil War. Her father was an ardent abolitionist, one of the notorious Rescuers from Oberlin. He was contemporaries with men like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. In addition to being a voracious advocate for abolition, he was a lawyer, a politician and an educator. Post war he was the first Black man elected to public office in Virginia and Minister to Haiti. He was a political force to be reckoned with. He later served as Dean of Howard University. Nettie grew up around great minds who were navigating a newly free society. History was happening around her as she played and grew.
James Carroll Napier was born almost fifteen years before Nettie to enslaved parents, William “Carroll” and Jane Watkins Napier, in Middle Tennessee. William and Jane were both owned by their fathers, Elias Napier and William E. Watkins. Carroll Napier was freed in his father’s will in 1848, three years after James was born. So although James was technically born a slave, he never knew slavery. The exact date of Jane’s emancipation cannot be determined, although her mother was listed as her father’s slave in his 1863 will.
As of 1850, both Carroll (noted as William C.) and Jane Napier were enumerated on the US Federal Census as being free people of color. Their next door neighbor was William E. Watkins, Jane’s father. Carroll Napier was an overseer, most likely for William Watkins. Carroll soon moved his young family to downtown Nashville, where he ran his own hackney business. Later he worked as a janitor for Vanderbilt University. He worked hard and was able to provide for his family quite well. His estate wealth in 1860 was, today worth, almost $150,000. Although, not the Langstons, the Napier family was quite successful.
James and his siblings were educated in Nashville and when schools for Black children were closed briefly in Nashville, their parents sent them North to Ohio to continue their education. James attended both Wilberforce and Oberlin Universities and later received his law degree at Howard University.
Carroll Napier and John Mercer Langston had a fortuitous meeting in 1864 after the Battle of Nashville. Territorial Gov. Andrew Johnson had issued an invitation to Langston to speak at the first anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in Nashville. Carroll Napier was one of the local organizers of the event. Two weeks before Langston was supposed to give his speech, the U.S. and Confederate armies engaged in horrific fighting for two days on the southern edge of Nashville. USCT soldiers bravely fought at the Battle of Nashville. While he was in the city to give his emancipation speech, Gov. Johnson asked Langston if he might also visit the USCT soldiers in Nashville and commend them for their bravery in battle. This experience resonated with Langston. He remembered it for the rest of his lifeand documented it in is autobiography. During this first introduction to each other, neither Napier nor Langston could have known that their families would be merged just fourteen years later when their children married.
Soon after their marriage James and Nettie moved to Nashville and settled into married life. James practiced law, helped to found the One Cent Bank and advocated for equality for Blacks. James was not only a contemporary of Booker T. Washington, but they were good friends. The Washingtons stayed with the Napiers when they were in Nashville.
Nettie was active in her church and as a “club woman.” I see “club women” as warriors for change. They saw poor and they tried to help. They saw wrong and they tried to make right. They met. They organized. They made a difference. Nettie’s shining achievement was the Day Home Club, which she served as President of. The Day Home Club was the first day care center for Black children in Nashville. Perhaps Nettie felt even more empathy for the plight of mothers and children because she and James never had any children of their own. But between 1895 and 1900 they adopted Carrie “Carrye” Corrine Langston, their niece.
In his 1895 autobiography, John Mercer Langston effused of his daughter and her kindness, her generosity and her “public spirt.” He had much to be proud of.
In 1911 James Carroll Napier was appointed as Registrar of the Treasury in Washington D.C., which required a move for he and Nettie. A farewell banquet was held in Nashville for couple. It is lucky for me, and for Nettie that Josie was chosen to toast her at the banquet. For Josie’s words paint a clearer person of Nettie and her accomplishments than I ever could.
Dr. J. E. Wells, in her own words about her dear friend:
“No word is needed from you to warn me I am not expected to tell half the philanthropic deeds done by the honoree of this occasion, for this would take us in the morning, and the half would not be told. But I come simply to tell you of this model philanthropic lady as I know her. During the past eight years I have been intimately associated with Mrs. Napier I can say and say truly, she is to my mind, a model woman and a true philanthropist. During these years in which I have been associated with Mrs. Napier I have never known her to turn aside from helping the poorest individual,who needed material help; or to withhold anything she could do of service to others. Each day between the door bell and the phone, it is no incessant interruption, and many of these calls are for help. Sometimes it is a call for her time to listen to the reading o fan article by an author, or a young woman’s essay, or a friend claims the time to tel her woes or joys. She gives her time–her precious time–like the merciful Father gives the rain. And the real beauty of her work is, she is entirely unconscious of the good she accomplishes at these interruptions.
As a club woman, for real work, she stands second to none. She is president of the Day Home Club, and through her leadership that club has accomplished more genuine, material work among the poor people than any other club in the city.
Incident after incident crowds upon my mind, of the many individual acts of the true philanthropist; among them, one that few people know is, Story of the girl who married.
Then to my mind I see her little adopted daughter, into whose life she has infused so much brightness and happiness; and whom she has made know that the mind is the real thing that counts in life; and a more intellectual–I might say a more brilliant and beautiful character you cannot find, than in the person of this young girl.
Mrs. Napier’s list of friends are found in all walks of life, and many hearts will be sad at her going. Among them, I add my personal testimony as to what her friendship has meant to me. If I have accomplished anything in my efforts here; if I have had any success in my work (and I have had a little), I owe a large share of it to my good friend, Mrs. Napier. Many times I have been discouraged and tired out; I have gone and poured my grievance to her and have always left her better for the going. And now my good friend, Mrs. Napier, if I have seemed to weight with a light weight all your friendship has meant to me, let me amend for it now by declaring here before our friends, you have been my greatest inspiration. I have never started anything where the cause was a worthy one but that you have stretched forth your hand, your influence to help me. Only a few days ago when I told her I could not get one to furnish the Maternity Ward at the new Hubbard Hospital, even though her family had made a generous donation, she gave fifty dollars of her own money to furnish this ward, and in a hundred other ways she has helped me in this club. Have no fear that time will cause the gratitude I bear you to lessen.
Perhaps there was no place where Mrs. Napier appeared to better advantage than in her home. As a model woman, an ideal housekeeper, she is excelled by none. System and order in her home is the first law. As a model wife, I know no woman her equal–and, if any one here felt inclined to dispute me, I have a few real facts to offer in rebuttal. First she stops everything, regardless how full the day may be, and listens to her good husband read the newspaper through–matters not how dry or long the political speech is, she discusses this with her husband and when every iota of the paper has been perused she sends him off to the office happy for the day.
In conclusion, were I called upon to grade by average per cent Mrs. Napier as a philanthropist, I would make it 100 per cent. As a model woman, I would make it 100 per cent. But when I came to grade her as an ideal friend, I would refuse to deal in the hundreth percents, I would make it 1,000 per cent. Her freinds think thus. But the poor women she helped materially knew thus.
My good friend, while we rejoice at this honor that is your husband’s and we know how much is rightly yours, and that no other woman could fill with more grace and dignity than will make your Nasville friends forget h=you have lived here, forget how at Christmas time you would work way into the night wishing them a happy Yuletide in a material way, forget your true, unselfish best self was always freely given whenever needed, influentially, materially or otherwise. I might wish you gold, but what care you for gold; I might wish you honor, that too does not count for all that is best; but the greatest and best wishes, I wish you always to be happy. “
With out a single doubt, the thing I love about my job the most is how studying someone else’s life journey can impress upon you in such a simple human way, a lesson. As I was writing about Nettie and reflecting on her friendships with Josie and Georgia, it struck me how successful they all were, in very different ways. But what stood out more clearly was how beloved they were. It is human nature to see success by measurements of education, career, fame and wealth. These ladies definitely measure high in such categories. All three ladies were educated at well known respected schools: Fisk, Oberlin and Meharry. Georgia was an internationally renown singer, the level of her fame was previously unheard of for a Black musician. Nettie was born into what could only be considered Black American royalty. As the daughter of John Mercer Langston and later the wife of J. C. Napier, she exemplified a well educated high society Black woman. Josie herself rose from nothing and exceeded any career goal she could possibly have set for herself. However, what their friends and family remembered about them when they died was their kindness, their goodness and their love. The measure of success never turns out to be how famous a person was, how brilliant of a scientist they were or what schools they attended. Success isn’t even measured by how hard and passionately the individual loved others. To quote the wonderful wily wizard of Oz when he gave the tin man his heart…(with one slight adaptation)…”Success is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.” Josie, Georgia and Nettie were incredibly loved and that makes my heart happy.
(1)-The Daily American. Nashville, TN 18 Oct 1878