by Jean Roseman
As Nashville’s attention turns to the revamped Public Square, we should take note of a fascinating but little-known story about that area. It is the story of the Reverend Charles Spencer Smith, an African American man of extraordinary accomplishments.
Smith was born into humble circumstances in Colborne, Canada, in 1852. Said to be able to read before the age of five, the boy loved books so much that the first money he ever spent was for a book. Attending school irregularly until he was ten, the youngster then struck out on his own. He first learned the trade of furniture refinishing and later worked at various other jobs: as a general utility boy in a boarding house, as a deck hand on the Great Lakes, as a cook, and as a waiter, continually working his way southward on the waterways.
Passionately fond of reading, especially newspapers, he educated himself successfully enough to become a teacher in Kentucky. When the Ku Klux Klan broke up the school, Smith moved on to Mississippi. There he was licensed to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church at Jackson, Mississippi, and also began to take an active role in politics.
Smith next settled in Mobile, Alabama, where he was ordained as a minister. Under the political changes initiated during Reconstruction, he was elected by a large majority to the 1874 Alabama House of Representatives. Widely respected for his prodigious knowledge and his impressive speaking skills, Smith gained a reputation as “the orator of the House.” However, the signing of the Amnesty Act, a period of economic depression, and a series of violent acts by white supremacists heralded a return to Democratic control of politics in the South, and many newly elected black politicians lost their seats in the 1874 and 1876 elections.
When his term ended in 1876, Smith came to Nashville. Still very active in the church, he attended Central Tennessee College (Meharry), receiving a full medical degree in 1880.
Two years later Smith founded a publishing house, the Sunday School Union of the A. M. E. Church, at 206 Public Square. He purchased the property for $9,000 from Maria Louisa Elliston Yandell, who had inherited it from her father, William Elliston. Much earlier it had been the site of the Nashville Inn in 1804.
The Sunday School Union was the first and only steam printing establishment in America to be owned and managed by an African American. From that location, Smith generated an enormous amount of printed religious material circulated not only in the United States but also abroad. Despite Charles Spencer Smith’s international renown, however, it was seven years before the Nashville City Directory (1889) mentioned him or his publishing house.
Not only did Smith successfully supervise the Nashville publishing operation, but he also became a bishop of the A. M. E. church in 1900, traveling widely throughout Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe. In 1911 he was distinguished as the first black recipient of the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Victoria College, Toronto. Before his death in 1922, Smith completed a continuation volume of the history of the A. M. E. church.
In Smith’s time 206 Public Square was a four-story building only 20 feet wide and 120 feet deep. Inscribed on the stone façade was the legend, “Founded A.D. 1882 by C. S. Smith.” At some point after 1918 the top two floors were blown off in a storm.
The building was purchased in 1918 by shoe businessman Sam Levy, who sold it in 1943 to the Katz family for their men’s furnishings wholesale house. In the mid-1960s, when the building was facing demolition, Katz descendant Dorothy Katz Mintz allied herself with others interested in preserving the building, hoping to convert it into a museum to commemorate Smith for his service to church and society. To this day, she still laments, “Now, why did they have to build a jailhouse on that property?” Some Nashvillians may still remember that, just prior to the demolition, the building housed the “Judge’s Chambers” restaurant on the Square.
Because of the efforts of the Reverend Charles Spencer Smith and others, 206 Public Square North has had a unique and unlikely history – one that should not be forgotten as a remodeled courthouse casts new shadows on the old Public Square.