Digital Humanities Interest Leads to Local Women’s History Tours
Dr. Mary Ellen Pethel is an author, historian, archivist, and digital humanist. She is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Global Education at Belmont University.
Digital humanist. That’s a descriptor I’ve not only learned to embrace but come to love. Almost a decade after completing my Ph.D. in history, I finally tackled the dissertation-to-book project—publishing Athens of the New South in 2017. The monograph focused on Nashville’s urban evolution from the Civil War to the Great Depression, and the city’s connective identity to institutions of higher education, including Vanderbilt.
As I entered the final stages of editing, I found myself wanting—more accurately needing—something more. I desired work that would reach and inform a wider audience while still telling Nashville’s complex story.
As serendipity would have it, that same spring I learned of George Mason University’s post-graduate Digital Public Humanities certificate program. Digital Humanities (DH) is difficult to define because it can mean many things. But simply put, DH offers a new vision for teaching and learning that combines interdisciplinary methods with technology—allowing students and scholars to participate as both producers and consumers of knowledge. I began the program the same semester my book was released by UT Press, and it wasn’t long before I was hooked.
As I learned new digital and public history skills, I had an epiphany. What if Nashville had a digital platform that could provide free self-guided walking tours—complete with mapping, narration, and historic images? A very long story short, two years later, NashvilleSites.org launched with over 20 mobile-friendly tours. (Did I mention free?) Local universities, including Vanderbilt, contributed through undergraduate and graduate interns and scholarly partnerships. I had, along with a whole lot of help and the support of the Metro Historic Commission Foundation, become a digital humanist.
From my undergraduate days to the present, women’s history has driven my research, and this has remained a central focus of Nashville Sites tours. All of the tours feature women important to our city’s history and culture; however, two specific tours are dedicated solely to women. So, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, I’d like to highlight the Woman’s Suffrage and Women’s History Highlight Tours.
Dr. Carole Bucy is the Davidson County Historian and a professor at Volunteer State Community College. She wrote and narrated both tours, and I assisted with several entries and managed the editorial process. Other contributors included Jessica Reeves, a preservationist at the Metro Historical Commission, who built the GIS mapping using a program called Mapbox, and Marley Abbott, an MTSU master’s candidate in public history, who served as a research assistant.
The Woman’s Suffrage tour tells a singular story that follows a loose chronology. It begins at Union Station, a train depot turned historic hotel, where proponents and opponents of the Nineteenth Amendment disembarked.
Best summarized by Dr. Bucy: “The eyes of the nation were focused on Nashville in the scorching, hot summer of 1920 as the constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote hung in the balance. . . . With a 3/4th state ratification required—it all came down to Tennessee.” The tour leads users through six sites downtown that played a prominent role in the fight for woman’s suffrage. This tour also tackles complex issues of race, religion, and, of course, politics.
Hear the wild tales from the Hermitage Hotel and learn about the dramatic moments leading up to and after the vote to ratify. Consider driving to Centennial Park for the final stop (optional) to see the suffrage monument featuring Carrie Chapman Catt, Sue Sheldon White, J. Frankie Pierce, and Anne Dallas Dudley.
The Women’s History Highlights tour is a bit longer, with fifteen stops, but it’s worth the walk. This tour includes nearly thirty profiles of extraordinary women who shaped Nashville’s history and culture. Some include:
· Sarah Estell, a quasi-enslaved woman who opened Nashville’s most popular ice cream shop in the 1850s,
· Lula Naff, Ryman Auditorium’s manager from 1920 to 1955,
· Arlene Ziegler and Mabel Ward who opened Satsuma Tea Room (restaurant) in 1918,
· First Lady Sarah Childress Polk who lived in downtown Nashville from 1849 until her death in 1891,
· Sally Thomas who worked to buy the freedom of her three sons between 1827 and 1850,
· artist Belle Kinney whose sculpture “Victory” anchors War Memorial Plaza,
· Donna Nicely and Margaret Ann Robinson who led the effort to build the current Nashville Public Library in 2001.
As you celebrate Women’s History Month, take a tour or two or ten on Nashville Sites. Here’s how. Head on over to NashvilleSites.org, explore the homepage, and click “See All Tours” for the full list. After choosing, listen to the intro—then select “Take Tour” to activate mapping for your in-person walk or select “Take Tour Virtually” to enjoy it from your couch. Be sure to click on the picture at the top—you’ll find a wide range of historic and current images with captions and credits.
And help us spread the good word! We’ve had almost 12,500 users and nearly 100,000 unique page views since our launch in November 2019 (which far exceeds the number who will ever hear of Athens of the New South, much less read it). Nashville Sites’s numbers remain quite good considering the year-long pandemic pause on our marketing rollout. With spring and summer approaching and vaccinations rising, we are readying our public relaunch.
How can you help? Take tours, support us, and follow and tag @NashvilleSites on social media (FB, Twitter, Insta, YouTube). Check out our new commercial and other behind- the-scenes videos. Send the lesson plans for the Woman’s Suffrage and Women’s History Highlights tours to fellow educators and scholars.
As it turns out, we can all be digital humanists.
Dr. Mary Ellen Pethel is an author, historian, archivist, and digital humanist. She is an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Global Education at Belmont University. She also serves as school archivist at Harpeth Hall School. She has published four books and several essays. Pethel recently completed post-graduate work at George Mason University—combining her passions for history and technology. As executive director for Nashville Sites, Dr. Pethel works with many community stakeholders and students at local universities including Belmont, Vanderbilt, TSU, Fisk, and MTSU. She is currently working on a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX.