Nancy De Gennaro, The Daily News Journal, November 27, 2016
MURFREESBORO — Gracie Turner knew when it “rained real hard,” she and her family would have to leave their home in the area known historically as The Bottoms for higher ground.
“My daddy, he was resourceful. He would put our furniture up and we’d go to my great-grandmother’s home,” recalled 86-year-old Turner, who spent the first 10 years of her life living in The Bottoms.
Located southwest of the Public Square, The Bottoms was a “shantytown” that formed after the Civil War during the Reconstruction Era, according to the Rutherford County Archives. Poverty-stricken, but resourceful, residents built homes with any available materials they could find.
Although there are few reminders left of the area known historically as The Bottoms, Turner has vivid memories of her childhood neighborhood. Nobody in The Bottoms had running water or indoor toilets or electricity that she could recall.
“There was a fire hydrant near my great-grandmother’s house, Mary Harris Johnson, and that was our free water. We used to tote the water (home),” Turner said.
Most of the tiny wooden homes would be referred to as “shacks” by today’s standards. But Turner’s mother instilled respect in her children. Although they were poor, Turner said she and her siblings were taught, “this is our home, so whatever you do, be clean with it and take care of it.”
Town Creek, which is what caused much of the flooding in the low-lying area during hard rains, as also her playground. The creek was diverted underground and can be seen flowing next to Cannonsburgh Village.
“Oh, we used to catch crawfish,” Turner said.
The poverty-stricken area was first home predominantly to African-Americans, but by the mid-20th century, that had changed.
“The historic Bottoms was an integrated community because it was a community of low-income citizens and families. For everyone living there, it was a matter of survival to meet the day-to-day needs as a community,” said Gloria Bonner, daughter of Mrs. Turner.
Flooding just got to be too much for Turner’s family. So they moved to higher ground for “better living conditions” to an area known as Simmons Alley, which is now East Sevier Street.
“We didn’t have an indoor toilet, but had an outdoor toilet that would flush. … And we could have a garden,” said Turner, remembering that everyone shared their bounty with each other.
Not even a hint of Simmons Alley remains, though at one time the gravel street ran right through the back side of the old city cemetery on Vine Street.
“The alley is still there, but the people moved away,” Turner said. “The house we lived in had a wraparound porch.”
Bonner said it’s hard for her to believe four full-size homes sat on each side of Simmons Alley. Her grandmother’s was one of them and she would often visit. Eventually, that short street was fenced off from the cemetery, although Bonner remembers the graveyard as her playground.
“I want people know it was a rich community and a rich culture and it was family oriented,” Bonner said.
Rosie Ramsey Perkins recalled Simmons Alley as “a close-knit community,” one where nobody had to lock their doors and nobody went hungry.
“We love everybody, we knew everybody and nobody suffered in that neighborhood,” Perkins said.
Much like The Bottoms, Simmons Alley gave way to progress.
Families were moved out of The Bottoms to make way for Broad Street and commerce in the area.
The property where Turner’s great-grandmother once lived is now at the corner where the fire hall stands, just below the Civic Plaza. Cannonsburgh Village and the surrounding warehouses and businesses on Front and West Castle streets were once part of The Bottoms, too.
Over the past year, the area has been part of an urban planning study looking at how to further develop the area for mixed uses, including housing and commerce. Soon, there may be even fewer reminders once Murfreesboro heads into the next phase of redevelopment of the area.
Simmons Alley is adjacent to what will eventually become Greenhouse Ministries’ new three-story facility, located on the corner of State and Academy streets.
“When we begin the build for the Simmons Alley area, it’s important that we connect the past with the present and future, and I’m very hopeful that these families (who once lived there) will be invited,” Bonner said.
Reach reporter Nancy De Gennaro at 615-278-5148 and follow her on Twitter @DNJMama and Instagram @LoisLane71.