Historical marker honoring early African American sculptor unveiled at Museum of Modern Art

Unveiling of the historical marker honoring William Edmondson.

A new historical marker has been erected in the Edgehill neighborhood, honoring a local artist.

On Saturday, Mayor John Cooper was joined by Sen. Brenda Gilmore, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, and other community leaders at the former Murrell Elementary School to unveil the marker honoring William Edmondson.

William Edmondson, son of Tennessee slaves, did not consider himself an artist when he began carving around 1932.

Edmondson held a number of jobs, including janitor, fireman, and hospital orderly, before he experienced a holy vision that inspired him to begin carving. At home, surrounded by pieces of stone, he heard a voice telling him to take his tools and “cut figures.” When he looked up, Edmondson later recalled, he saw a tombstone hanging in midair and took this as a sign to carve tombstones for Nashville’s Black community.

His repertoire eventually included birdbaths, flowerpots, and human and animal figures. Edmondson kept his finished pieces in his yard, where they attracted the attention of a literary circle from nearby Vanderbilt University. His association with this group eventually led to an exhibition of Edmondson’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, the first African American artist to be featured in a solo exhibition at the museum.

Edmondson carved limestone, delivered directly to his backyard by local wrecking companies, with chisels that he fashioned from railroad spikes. He worked up until a year before his death when the heavy work of stone carving became too difficult.

“It’s one of the great stories of Tennessee of all time that a man called by God would become a significant American artist right here in Nashville using discarded limestone and a railroad spike,” said Cooper.

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