In 1978, the city of Nashville leased 18 acres of a Civil War monument to a local businessman who wanted to start a new baseball franchise — the Nashville Sounds, then a Double A expansion team for the Southern League — and needed a place for his team to play. It was a ludicrous arrangement from the start: a privately owned ball field built on public land.
And not just any public land. Greer Stadium was built at the base of St. Cloud Hill, where the Union Army erected a stronghold after taking control of the city in 1862. Fort Negley was an investment designed to protect the Union’s hold on Nashville and its strategic access to roads, railroad lines and the Cumberland River.
Fort Negley Park is not a Civil War monument in the South that celebrates the heroism of the Confederacy, in other words. Fort Negley Park is a Civil War monument in the South that celebrates the preservation of the United States of America. The question of what will happen to it has roiled Nashville for more than a year.
In part, that’s because it’s a crucial site for African-American history as well. During the war, the grounds surrounding Fort Negley served as a de facto refugee camp for escaped slaves. In an irony lost on no one today, the Union Army immediately forced those refugees into service; under brutal conditions, some 2,700 of them built Fort Negley itself. Many lost their lives and are believed to be buried at Fort Negley Park. When the South surrendered, the survivors — joined by other freed slaves — settled there. Today the area is gentrifying, home to new art galleries and coffee shops, but it is still populated largely by low-income African-Americans.
In their midst now lies one badly overgrown and dilapidated minor-league ball field. Greer Stadium has sat empty since the Nashville Sounds departed at the end of the 2014 season. As part of a preserved Civil War site, the stadium’s location has long been designated as public parkland, going back to 1928, when the city bought it from the descendants of John Overton, a longtime crony of President Andrew Jackson. That parcel was always meant to revert to parkland once the Sounds decamped.