Mansions symbolized success of ex-slave, descendants

Wednesday, 09/20/06

As young boys in the early 1940s, my friends and I would pass on walks an impressive mansion that took up half a city block at 16th Avenue North and Heiman Street.

A shiny black limo with an open seat in front for a chauffeur and a closed back for passengers sat under an attached portico.

Older people later told me it was built by the Boyd family, founders of the black Citizens Savings Bank, one of two mansions built by the Boyds. The other was at 16th Avenue and Meharry Boulevard.

Did the one at 16th and Heiman burn down or what did happen to it? — Everette Morris, Nashville.

The two homes — one still standing, the other now gone — were evidence of the vision and success of an ex-slave and his Nashville descendants.

Richard Henry Boyd moved here from Texas, making his fortune meeting the spiritual and banking needs of African-Americans in Nashville and elsewhere.

Boyd’s National Baptist Publishing Board, started in 1896 to supply literature to black churches, and the Citizens Savings Bank and Trust he headed here were revolutionary for an oppressed minority.

But Boyd’s interests were vast. He started a newspaper, The Globe, to give a strong voice to a growing segment of Nashville’s population. He helped form the Nashville Negro Board of Trade and even began a doll-manufacturing company to make sure black children had toys with a positive image.

His early years after his 1843 birth into slavery in Mississippi included aid to his Confederate masters during Civil War fighting and a period in Texas as a cowboy and a preacher. Boyd began to realize black Baptist Sunday schools in his Texas district and elsewhere lacked teaching materials.

San Antonio, where he lived at the time, wasn’t well suited to such a venture because of its location, Boyd believed. Relocating to Nashville in 1896, he founded the publishing firm by the end of that same year while living in a boarding house here.

"Boyd telephoned his son, Henry Allen, and directed him to ship a typewriter and two quilts from San Antonio," Tennessee State University historian Bobby L. Lovett wrote.

The venture, marketing literature to churches across the country, proved vastly successful.

Just four years later, in January 1901, the Nashville American newspaper featured him in an article headed "How a Colored Man Started Publishing House in Nashville and Made a Fortune." By then he was employing 107 workers.

The year before he died in 1922, in his house at 1602 Heiman St., Boyd’s company was printing 7.5 million periodicals. The figure was down from 11.7 million in 1909, due in part to the economy and an influenza outbreak.

His son, Henry Allen Boyd (1876-1959), later took on the father’s role in most of the family endeavors. The son became secretary-treasurer of the National Baptist Publishing Board, president of the bank and editor of The Globe.

It was Henry A. Boyd who built the two-story brick house at 1603 Meharry Blvd., now a restored element of the Fisk University campus.

"He built it for his wife, a Fisk alumna, because she wanted to be close to the campus," said Reavis Mitchell, historian at Fisk.

The house, on what was in earlier times called Harding Street, continued as Henry A. Boyd’s until he gave it to the university. City directories show he moved into the Heiman Street residence that had formerly been his father’s by 1942.

The city directory that same year lists 1603 as a senior girls’ dormitory for Fisk. By 1976, the "Boyd House" had served over the years as a men’s dorm, a guest house and as home of the university’s Honors Program. It was among the structures supporting the university’s 1978 listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The house had fallen into disrepair by 1993, but a lease arrangement with a dentist and her husband who hoped to restore it offered one possibility. However, the finding of asbestos inside and removal costs became a financial obstacle, according to a news story that year.

Fisk completed restoration of the building about two years ago and now uses it for programs to help international students, university officials said.

Richard Henry Boyd’s larger 2½-story home at 1602 Heiman St. did not fare as well. By the early 1970s, like much of that part of north Nashville, the brick house with its round tower was cut off from easy access by interstate construction — in this case, just across the street.

In the 1960s and 1970s it was sometimes vacant, other times occupied by various individuals and two successive day-care centers until 1982, when the city directory did not list the address at all.

In the years since its demolition, a row of modern residences has been built on the site, a block away from St. Vincent De Paul School. A cut stone wall across the street from where it had been still hints at the area’s lost grandeur.

But Nashville’s Boyd family is far from gone. Citizens Bank continues today, with one of its offices at 1917 Heiman St. Opened by Richard Henry Boyd and others in 1904 as One Cent Savings Bank, it has been described in recent years as one of the country’s two oldest African-American-founded banks still in operation.

Also, T.B. Boyd III has continued since 1979 to head the publishing company founded by his great-grandfather. It was formerly governed by his father in 1959-79 and his great-uncle, Henry A. Boyd, in 1922-1959. •

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