Born enslaved in Nashville in 1845, James C. Napier’s parents freed their family when he was two years-old, and instilled in their young son the value of education. In 1856, when the school he was attending was forced to close because it educated African American children, he continued his education in Ohio. As a young man, he was invited to attend the newly formed Howard University School of Law. Upon his return to Nashville, Napier established himself as a political and entrepreneurial giant.
He practiced law, owned a real estate business, and was the first Black person to serve and preside over the Nashville City Council between 1878 and 1886. Napier uplifted the Black community by promoting the hiring Black people as teachers, detectives, firefighters, and other important professions.
In 1904, Napier became a founder and the manager of the One Cent Savings Bank, now known as the Citizens Savings Bank. He also established the Nashville branch of the National Negro Business League in 1905. Knowing the importance of education, Napier served on the boards of Fisk and Howard Universities and was instrumental in the creation of the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now the Tennessee State University). His highest position came when he was appointed the Register of the United States Treasury by President William Howard Taft from 1911 to 1913. He is known as one of Nashville’s most influential post-Civil War citizens due to his dedication to the Black community.
Today, Napier’s legacy is clear in the many educational institutions he helped create as well as the Nashville community that bears his name, the James C. Napier Homes.
(Early aerial photo of the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State College, now the Tennessee State University. James C. Napier was instrumental in the creation of this university. [Courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum 95.19.65])
About Tennessee State Museum
The Tennessee State Museum, on the corner of Rosa L Parks Blvd. and Jefferson Street at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville, is home to 13,000 years of Tennessee art and history. Through six permanent exhibitions titled Natural History, First Peoples, Forging a Nation, The Civil War and Reconstruction, Change and Challenge and Tennessee Transforms, the Museum takes visitors on a journey – through artifacts, films, interactive displays, events and educational and digital programing – from the state’s geological beginnings to the present day. Additional temporary exhibitions, including Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote, explore significant periods and individuals in history, along with art and cultural movements. The Museum is free and open to the public Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.. and Sundays from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. For more information on exhibitions and events, please visit tnmuseum.org.
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