24 Nashville Black leaders to know in 2024, from boardrooms and pulpits to classrooms (2024)

Sandy MazzaNashville Tennessean

In the heart of Nashville, a city pulsating with rich, cultural tapestry, the influence of Black leaders resonates more powerfully than ever in 2024. These trailblazers of today embody resilience, innovation and a commitment to fostering community change. Men and women that ensure our children are safe; prepared for future careers; emboldened to sound off in the face of injustice; inspired to dream.

Some are familiar and others less well-known, but their impact extends beyond respective sectors; journeys and dynamic narratives that elevate our collective aspirations. Founders, first responders and faith leaders. Entrepreneurs and executives. An architect and artists.

This list, curated with support from Tennessean staffers and community stakeholders, represents 24 influential community leaders to follow during Black History Month 2024. Of course, there are many others, but we believe this account gives a clear snapshot of Nashville's best and brightest.

In honing the lineup, The Tennessean decided to focus on community leaders not already serving in elected political office. This decision was not made to discount the impact and achievements of Nashville’s Black lawmakers and thought leaders.Indeed, many are making a profound impact from the halls of the state Capitol to the corridors of the Metro Courthouse and beyond.

Let’s celebrate these 24 leaders making a difference in Nashville.


Cathy Bender

As chair of the Metro Nashville Sports Authority, Cathy Bender manages the city's largest real-estate deals for its sporting venues.

And that's not even her day job. Bender is a senior financial adviser for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. Throughout her academic and professional careers, she has proven that she can excel in varied environments.

She is the first Black woman to lead the influential Sports Authority. Bender was also the first Black woman to receive an athletic scholarship at Vanderbilt University, where she set records for assists as a basketball player. In 2021, Bender was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

She's supported others through mentoring and sponsoring student athletes as co-chair of the Vanderbilt Black & Gold Club and the Endowed Scholarship Fund for the Association of Vanderbilt Black Alumni, among other nonprofits. She was also co-chair of the Baron’s Society fundraising initiative for the National Museum of African American Music.

Corrinne Tarver

At the University of Georgia in 1989, she summersaulted her way to becoming the first Black gymnast to win an NCAA all-around title.

Flip forward to today. Corrinne Tarver is an accomplished coach guiding the nation’s first historically Black college gymnastics program through its inaugural season. Under her leadership, the Fisk University Lady Bulldogs — or Gymdogs — earned national recognition on Good Morning America, ABC News and the Jennifer Hudson Show while securing sponsorship with SheaMoisture.

The Gymdogs are dazzling fans and inspiring girls during a time of increasing diversity in the historically white-dominated sport.

During its second year, which started in January, Fisk gymnastics ranks second in Division III. Last season, Gymdogs Morgan Price and Liberty Mora won bronze medals in floor and beam, respectively, at the 2023 USA Gymnastics Women’s Collegiate National Championships.

Adolpho Birch III

Adolpho Birch III, senior vice president and chief external and league affairs officer for the Tennessee Titans, played a pivotal role in facilitating stadium negotiations between the NFL and the Nashville community.

Having joined the Titans in 2020, Birch brought with him 24 years of experience with the NFL. During his tenure with the league, he held the position of senior vice president of labor policy and league affairs, playing a critical role in developing and enforcing game-integrity policies related to drugs, gambling and personal conduct.

In his current role in Nashville, Birch has been at the forefront of navigating the intricate, $2.1 billion Nissan Stadium deal via extensive negotiations with Metro and league officials. He has been instrumental in the development of a comprehensive community-benefits package that provides education, workforce development and sponsorship opportunities with a deliberate focus on fostering diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring.

Birch's leadership exemplies a commitment not only to securing a state-of-the-art facility, but also enriching the broader Nashville community.


Bishop Joseph Warren Walker III

For three decades, Bishop Joseph Warren Walker III has held the esteemed position of pastor of the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church, overseeing its remarkable expansion from a congregation of hundreds to more than 30,000 members in three locations.

Beyond his pastoral duties, Walker has published 14 books that have transformed him into a sought-after media commentator and public speaker. He also presently holds the distinguished position of international presiding bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.

Walker extends his influence as a dedicated board member at the nation's oldest Black-owned bank, Citizens Savings Bank & Trust. His commitment to education and community service is further evident in his positions as board member at the Greater Nashville Chapter of the United Negro College Fund and Tennessee State University.

Emilie Townes

As Vanderbilt University Divinity School's first African American dean, Emilie Townes has fostered a progressive atmosphere in a region known for traditional values. Queer studies, global ethnic conflicts and racial justice are some of the social issues added to the curriculum under Townes' leadership.

A womanist ethicist and American Baptist minister, she helped develop the school's new James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements. She is also Vanderbilt's E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of womanist ethics and society, and in 2008 was named the first African American woman elected president of the American Academy of Religion. Townes served as president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (2012-16) and was elected as president of the Society of Christian Ethics (2024-25).

Though she stepped down from leading the Vanderbilt's Divinity School in 2023, Townes left a deep impression during her 10-year tenure.

John Faison

John Faison has expanded the congregation as senior pastor at Watson Grove Baptist Church in the historically Black Edgehill neighborhood and provided leadership on social issues in the larger community and as a national speaker.

He joined Watson Grove in 2012 and has invested in the community with a food pantry, healthcare services and scholarships.

Faison, a former U.S. Army officer, is an ambassador for the NAACP on HIV and AIDS, and Watson Grove supports the effort by hosting free HIV testing. Watson also serves as assistant to the bishop of social action for the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship and president of the Grover Community Development Corp., as well as a board member at Belmont University and Leadership Nashville.

He is a co-chair of Imagine Nashville, a community-wide survey and coalition to increase public engagement and influence the city’s planning and growth.


Don Hardin

To spot Don Hardin's handywork, look up.

The architectural engineer established the Don Hardin Group in 2001 and has since played a pivotal role in constructing part of Nashville’s skyline.

Most recently, Don Hardin Group served as the project manager for the National Museum of African American Music. Other notable buildings include the Music City Center, the 45-story 505 Church Street and First Horizon Park, Nashville's minor-league baseball stadium. The firm has also managed key projects by Nissan North America, Vanderbilt University and HCA.

Joycelen Stevenson

An attorney and chair of the Metro Nashville Airport Authority board of commissioners, Joycelyn Stevenson guided the leadership team through a tumultuous 2023 as state officials sought to take over appointments of airport leadership from Metro leaders.

Stevenson and four other board members were displaced for several months by appointments imposed by a new state law — until the legislation was overturned in court. Since returning to the board, Stevenson has led a smooth transition that allowed airport operations to continue without interruption.

Her legal expertise and investment in the community has been established over many years of service.

Stevenson is the office managing shareholder at Littler Mendelson, an employment and labor law firm. From 2013-17, she served as executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association. She has also held positions as president elect of the National Association of Bar Executives and past president of National Bar Association and the Lawyers' Association for Women.

Derrick Moore, E.J. Reed and Clint Gray

Three Tennessee State University roommates — Derrick Moore, E.J. Reed and Clint Gray — struck cheese when they founded a new pizzeria concept on North Nashville’s Buchanan Street, part of the city’s original African American business district.

Their restaurant, Slim & Husky’s, opened in 2017 to hourlong lines and expanded later that year with a neighboring cinnamon bun concept. Slim & Husky’s has since grown into a thriving chain of restaurants and helped to reinvigorate Buchanan Street. The chain now has 13 locations, including one in California and three in Georgia.

In 2021, Slim & Husky’s became the first Black-owned business to open on Nashville’s famed Broadway strip in the Fifth + Broadway development. Two years later, Slim & Husky's was a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation's Restaurant and Chef "outstanding restaurateur" award.

Andre Prince Jeffries

Since becoming matriarch in the 1980s, Andre Prince Jeffries has transformed her family’s famous fried and fiery eatery into an internationally recognized brand.

Founded in North Nashville in the 1940s, the Prince family restaurant now known as Prince's Hot Chicken is the creator of Nashville’s only original dish. "Nashville hot chicken" recipes like Prince's are now served in restaurants around the world.

The crispy, cayenne pepper-infused chicken was developed by accident a century ago, according to Prince family lore. The story is that Thornton Prince III’s girlfriend, in a jealous rage, sabotaged his fried chicken seasoning with hot peppers. But the recipe turned out to be delicious, fueling the restaurant's local popularity.

The James Beard Foundation culinary award-winning eatery was named one of America’s 38 essential restaurants by Eater in 2018. Under Jeffries’ leadership, Prince’s Hot Chicken has grown to nine locations with two more opening soon — at the Nashville airport and on North Nashville’s Jefferson Street — near the original location of what was then called BBQ Chicken Shack.

In 2022, she was inducted into the Nashville Entrepreneur Center’s Entrepreneurs’ Hall of Fame.

Richard Manson

Attorney Richard Manson’s storied career includes representing Rosa L. Parks, as well as Grammy-winning artists.

He is currently president of SourceMark, a medical products and services supplier, and a founding partner of law firm Manson Johnson Conner. A regular speaker at conferences and chairman of the Tennessee Minority Supplier Development Council, Manson serves as a board member for the Healthcare Supplier Diversity Alliance.

For decades, Manson has served on the board of Citizens Savings Bank & Trust, the nation’s oldest continuously owned Black-owned bank; he was named chairman in 2018. He also served as chair of the Nashville General Hospital board (2022-23).

Jacky Akbari

Jacky Akbari, founder and managing principal of Worthington Advisory, has been a key figure in major business growth in Nashville for decades — often behind the scenes.

A longtime economic-development officer in the Nashville mayor's office, Akbari has touched nearly every major new deal in town in the past 20 years. She is a global workforce engagement strategist who works with companies to engage and diversify their workforces, consult with governments and promote their products and services.

Her deep knowledge of the Nashville region has made her a trusted adviser for Nissan North America, UBS, Alliance Bernstein, Amazon, Oracle, Microsoft, Asurion, Vanderbilt University and other enterprise organizations.

Beyond working with the business world on creative solutions, Akbari gives back to the community as an active member of the Downtown Nashville Rotary Club and a YMCA of Middle Tennessee board member. She hosts Diversity Nashville bus tours, among other events, to introduce residents and visitors alike to the city's varied cultural, religious and historic landmarks.

Marcus Whitney

Health-tech entrepreneur Marcus Whitney founded the first U.S. venture fund to exclusively invest in Black-owned businesses. He routinely speaks at influential business conferences. He’s also a blue belt in Brazilian jujitsu who was instrumental to bringing Major League Soccer to Nashville.

And it all started when Whitney taught himself software engineering while waiting tables in Nashville.

Whitney co-founded Jumpstart Health Investors in 2013 to support promising Black-owned health care firms. In 2022, the organization launched the $55 million Jumpstart Nova venture fund for health IT, diagnostic equipment, biotech, medical device manufacturing and other Black-led health-related businesses.

Among other activities, Whitney co-founded and is a minority owner of MLS’s Nashville Soccer Club, and he serves on the boards of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Launch Tennessee.

In 2020, he authored "Create and Orchestrate," his first book on entrepreneurship.

Lee Molette II

Lee Molette II wears many hats — investment adviser, developer, philanthropist, sales manager — but his community service is as well-known as his outsized impact on the Nashville business world.

Originally from Detroit, Molette has championed making Nashville a more inclusive city for minority business owners for decades. He founded Molette Investment Services and Frank Stanton Developers — named for his grandfather. Meanwhile, he has been active in leading community groups Nashville Business Alliance Political Action Committee, Inroads and the Nashville Business Incubation Center.

In 2020, he co-founded the Table Action mentoring and networking organization dedicated to growing successful minority-owned businesses through mentorship. In 2023, he was named chair of 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee, a nonprofit focused on developing social and educational opportunities for young Black men. Molette's commitment to creating a more inclusive business community has helped countless young companies while influencing other leaders to do the same.

Nonprofit and public service

John Drake

Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake has steered the city through some of its most tumultuous years while expanding public-safety services.

He became Davidson County’s eighth police chief in November 2020 — one month before a man detonated a homemade bomb in a camper downtown on Christmas morning. From the scene, Drake led the initial emergency response and investigation, while fielding community concerns.

His leadership further extended to managing security during numerous community protests surrounding police brutality and gun laws, skillfully implementing enhanced police presence without escalating political tensions.

In 2022, Drake responded to increased crime reports on Broadway's world-famous tourist strip by establishing an Entertainment District Unit, tasked to police downtown Nashville as it absorbed the brunt of demand from an average of 200,000 tourists a day.

Challenges continued in 2023, with Drake leading the response to a tragic mass shooting at The Covenant School on March 27, 2023. Police responded to the school eight minutes after getting the call and swiftly subdued the shooter, who killed three students and three staff members. Throughout the response, Drake communicated with the public, providing reassurance and updates.

Drake's journey in law enforcement began in 1988 with the MNPD. He steadily worked his way up the ranks, from patrol to narcotics, internal affairs and commander of the Central Precinct, before securing the top spot.

On Oct. 24, the public witnessed Drake's personal grief as news broke that his estranged son, John C. Drake Jr., was found dead amid a massive police search following his alleged shooting of two police officers.

The chief's dedication to professional responsibilities and personal challenges underscores his resilience and commitment to public service and family.

William Swann

After leaving the U.S. Army, William Swann spent decades climbing the ranks to become the first Black Nashville Fire Department Black Director Chief.

In 2018, he was promoted to the top job by then-Mayor David Briley, overseeing fire, medical and rescue emergency response for the county.

Also serving as director of the office of emergency management, Swann has been critical to managing disaster response during numerous devastating tornadoes, The Covenant School mass shooting and the downtown bombing on December 25, 2020.

For the first time since 2001, the Fire Suppression Division is fully staffed.

Swann, a graduate of Trevecca Nazarene University, also supports the community, teaching adult leadership and life-support classes, as well as participating in Leadership Nashville.

Swann's steady, thoughtful leadership and skillful disaster preparation has helped make him an invaluable leader.

Sharon Roberson

YWCA Nashville and Middle Tennessee President Sharon Roberson has built a strong domestic-violence response network during a period of increased abuse reports in the community, while also expanding the nonprofit’s educational and social-justice programs.

She implemented YWCA’s Amend Together program, in partnership with the Nashville Predators hockey team, to help prevent domestic violence through education in the public school system. Roberson also instituted Abbie’s Safe Home, a pet-shelter program for families fleeing domestic abusers.

Prior to leading YWCA, Roberson worked as a senior vice president and general counsel in the insurance industry. There, she also made a lasting impact. She was the first Black female president of the Tennessee Association of Life Insurance Cos. and the first Black woman to chair the Tennessee Life & Health Insurance Guaranty Association.

She has served on boards of the Nashville Symphony and Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee.

Marshall Crawford

As CEO of the Housing Fund, Marshall Crawford is on the front lines of Nashville's growing affordable housing crisis.

Crawford stretches about $30 million annually in private and public affordable-housing funds to create as much new and preserved low-cost housing as possible. In 2023, the Housing Fund developed 608 new affordable units and preserved 715 homes, while increasing housing loans to underserved groups.

He brought expertise to the position from prior roles as president of development for Community Ventures Corp., senior director for NeighborWorks America's southern region and an examiner with the Department of the Treasury's Office of Thrift Supervision.

Crawford is on the board of directors for the Nashville branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, My Brother’s Keeper and the African American Alliance of CDFI CEOs Nashville.


Adrienne Battle

Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle manages a vast network of 150 schools with 80,000 students and 11,000 employees as the leader of one of the nation's largest school districts.

Since her 2019 appointment as the first Black woman to be president of MNPS, she has led the city through the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the deadly 2020 tornadoes, while adding teacher pay increases, six new schools and many new facilities and programs.

Battle oversaw the launch of Gear Up senior-college tracker and a joint venture called Better Together with Nashville State Community College to increase post-secondary opportunies for students and provide needed scholarships.

Her Metro Schools ReimaginED program also seeks creative ways to maximize resources by analyzing district data.

James Hildreth

Meharry Medical College President James Hildreth is an infectious disease expert who helped lead Nashville's COVID-19 response. He was also a national figure during the pandemic.

He was appointed to President Joe Biden's Health Equity Task Force and to the Food and Drug Administration's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee to consider COVID-19 vaccine candidates in 2020.

Hildreth is a Rhodes scholar elected to the National Academy of Medicine. He's served on the advisory council to the National Institutes of Health and is chair of St. Jude's Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. He also serves on the boards of the Nashville Healthcare Council, the Boy Scouts of America and the United Methodist Church's General Board of Higher Education.

Glenda Glover

As president of Tennessee State University since 2012, Glenda Glover has orchestrated substantial growth in grant funding and endowments, while elevating the institution's national profile.

President Joe Biden recognized Glover's leadership prowess in 2021 by appointing her to his board of advisers for historically Black colleges and universities. She helped secure Vice President Kamala Harris as commencement speaker (May 7, 2022); TSU alumna Oprah Winfrey followed (May 6, 2023).

With a rich academic background, Glover is a certified public accountant and attorney with extensive investment in community service. She serves as lead director of Pinnacle Financial Partners and is a Metro Nashville Airport Authority board member.

The arts

Allison Russell

Self-taught singer, songwriter and social activist Allison Russell is one of Nashville’s most promising up-and-coming artists. Her combination of musical talent, storytelling prowess and social activism makes her a standout figure in the contemporary music landscape.

Russell's music effortlessely weaves folk, soul and Americana styles into a unique sound with highly personal lyrics that resound with emotional depth.

Her first two solo albums garnered eight Grammy nominations, including Best Americana Album for "The Returner." She has leveraged her rising star to advocate for inclusivity across platforms and held benefit concerts such as "Love Rising," which supported LGBTQ+ organizations in Tennessee.

A member of Our Native Daughters collaboration featuring artists from diverse backgrounds, she speaks out about her personal struggles, including an abusive childhood. Russell's influence has been recognized with the 2022 Americana Music Association Album of the Year award and the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award.

Shannon Sanders

Shannon Sanders, BMI Nashville's executive director of creative, is an award-winning producer and leading music executive in Nashville.

Sanders has garnered three Grammy awards, two Emmys and one Dove Award in a career working with John Legend, Jonny Lang, the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other artists. He was India.Arie’s musical director for 20 years.

He not only boasts an impressive array of awards and accomplishments, but dedicates himself to nurturing the artistic community and shaping the future of Nashville's future entertainment scene.

Sanders founded radio station 102.1 FM The Ville, and is a Recording Academy trustee, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s education committee and a tourism commissioner for the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. Most recently, he joined the board of the newly formed Nashville Music, Film & Entertainment Commission.

Jamaal B. Sheats

Jamaal B. Sheats, director and curator of Fisk University Galleries, has shepherded the institution's world-class collections and curated celebrated exhibitions since taking the helm in 2016.

Not only is Fisk a historically crucial educational home for African Americans amid historic racial inequality, but its art galleries include Alfred Stieglitz's Collection of Modern Art, donated by Georgia O'Keeffe in 1949.

Fisk sold a portion of its rights to the collection to keep the school afloat during financial troubles in 2012. Since then, Sheats has helped to draw in record numbers of visitors with a series of acclaimed exhibitions, including African Modernism in America.

Sheats, an artist himself who specializes in a style of metal relief sculpture, also established a museum leadership program focused on diversity.

Sandy Mazza can be reached via email at smazza@tennessean.com, by calling 615-726-5962, or on Twitter @SandyMazza.

24 Nashville Black leaders to know in 2024, from boardrooms and pulpits to classrooms (2024)
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