105. Nashville history lives in Charlie Fenton.
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Nashville’s Charlie Fenton is no ordinary man. In the 1960’s, right after serving in the U.S. Navy, he rode a motorbike–“125cc!”–from Norfolk, Virginia to San Fransisco–nearly 3,000 miles! His first job after the Navy: Medical technician on a Stanford University heart transplant team! “I was working the DeBakey pump… I did that for a couple of years. In those days we only got the worst cases sent to us from all over the country. It was just too much death for my 24-year-old body to handle…. And that’s when I got political and went into civil rights…”
Charlie headed to Louisiana. While working as a civil rights activist he was offered a scholarship to attend Grambling College. But because the laws were against any desegregation he had to sue to attend Grambling because it was a legally all-black school. So he became the first non-African American admitted to Grambling College in the undergraduate program.
He followed the civil rights movement to Chicago where he learned about Martin Luther King’s pivot to include anti-poverty activism along with civil rights. So he moved on to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the poor–and even had the opportunity to spend time with Mr. King where they made a tender memory.
Work took him back to New York where he was from and by the mid 1970’s the young former Navy Corpsman found himself working in the World Trade Center. “I was in charge of five floors.” But his heart was with the poor and the struggling.
So he jumped on the campaign trail for Jimmy Carter and the campaign sent him to Nashville. After the campaign Charlie said he just couldn’t go back to his life in New York. Nashville had captivated him.
He took a pay cut and took at job as Foreign Student Advisor at Tennessee State University. “I only speak English. I don’t speak Spanish. I took Russian one time and flunked it miserably. I don’t have any kind of other language than English. Without the experience of foreign countries, without the language, without the degree, without these kinds of components I feel that I got my job with empathy. I can understand your point of interest…. That kind of empathy has gotten me a number of jobs that I had no qualification for, none whatsoever.”
Several years later Charlie led the way in saving Second Ave by opening a restaurant on a street where no one wanted to be.
Charlie is downtown Nashville’s great historian and loves to take a walk and entertain guests with hidden gems of stories about buildings and pirates and dark alleys. But what is unique about Charlie’s history is that he has lived it. And he has lived it well.
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