Historic Marker Honors Nashville LBGT Pioneer Penny Campbell
Lockeland Springs is well known for its rich cultural history and its streets lined with welcoming bungalows and small businesses. Now, it also has the distinction of having Tennessee’s first publicly sanctioned historical marker commemorating the efforts of the LGBT movement: a breakthrough not only for Tennessee and the South, but also the country at large.
On Dec. 9, a dedication ceremony was held on the 1600 block of McEwen Avenue in front of the former residence of Penny Campbell, a pioneer in the fight for LGBT rights and a tireless advocate for equality and justice.
“Any gay person involved in LGBT activism over the last couple decades has been pretty surprised at the rate of change,” says Pippa Holloway, the MTSU professor and LGBT activist who led the efforts for the marker. “I think (Campbell) would share in our surprise and true pleasure, yet would still be frustrated with the many legacies of homophobia, violence, etc., that persists. My guess is that she would be happy with the progress, but still not see the fight as being over.”
Campbell is perhaps best-known for her role in Campbell v. Sundquist, the landmark 1996 trial which overturned state level laws that criminalized private consensual sex between same sex partners. She also organized Tennessee’s contingent for the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights and Nashville’s first gay pride parades in the late ’80s, when such events were the subject of much public scrutiny and even the threat of violence.
Penny Campbell’s personal work can be seen as part of the legacy started by her father, Will D. Campbell, the famous civil rights activist who was integral to the movement from its inception and a member of Martin Luther King’s inner circle. Aside from spearheading the advancement of LGBT rights in Tennessee, she more generally was a bridge from the ways of the old South to what Mayor Megan Barry calls the “warm welcoming culture” found in Nashville today.
The idea for the marker was born after Holloway ran into Jesse Correll and Jeanne Moran — the home’s current owners — while she was walking her dog through the neighborhood. They informed her of the home’s history, and while she was aware of Penny Campbell, she was not aware of the extent of her work nor that she lived just around the corner.
Inspired, Holloway set the ball in motion. She went to the Nashville Public Library, compiled all the articles she could find on Campbell, wrote her case for the marker’s implementation, and brought it before the Metro Historical Commission. Although the process was concise and bureaucratic, the motion passed almost unanimously.
The speakers at the marker’s dedication included Mayor Barry, District 6 Councilman Brett Withers, and Abby Rubenfeld, longtime Nashville LGBT community leader and Campbell’s attorney in Campbell v. Sundquist. Also in attendance were Correll and Moran, who were kind enough to facilitate the whole event.
“Frankly, a lot of the social activism we used to see so much here in East Nashville is dwindling, and that is part of why it is so important to document people in the community who just got involved in things because they thought it was the right thing to do,” Withers says, reflecting on Campbell’s leadership. “It wasn’t always that easy. If you talk to people who attended pride parades when they began in Nashville in the late ’80s, they weren’t on the public square, they didn’t have a mayor speaking at them, they didn’t have corporate sponsors.
“It took people getting involved and making these things an issue to bring about what Mayor Barry calls the ‘warm and welcoming culture’ of Nashville today,” he continues, “and I think a lot of people now take that for granted and aren’t always as willing to get involved in causes or even just helping their neighbors as they were just a few years ago. I just hope this is a reminder that we stand on the shoulders of people who made our city possible, and it’s more than just a place to go and party.”