by Emily Schwimmer
The C. H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa sits on an important archaeological site. The story of its discovery is a fascinating bit of history. The site is also important to the C. H. Nash Museum’s mission and programs today.
Before the C. H. Nash Museum existed on this site, the land hosted a prehistoric Native American village. Between the time of this prehistoric village and the founding of the museum in 1956, the site also served as the home of the Ensley Plantation, a 40,000-acre ante-bellum cotton plantation. In the 1930s, the State of Tennessee and Shelby County chose this area as the site for a Tennessee state park to be used by African Americans. This park became one of the two Tennessee state parks for African Americans created during the Jim Crow era.
In 1940, a group of African American Civilian Conservation Corps workers were in the midst of constructing the park, which is now called T. O. Fuller State Park. On one particular day, this CCC company was digging the base for a swimming pool when they discovered the remains of a prehistoric village. Work on the swimming pool stopped immediately, as scientists investigated the find. Eventually, archaeologists associated with the Tennessee Division of State Parks, the University of Tennessee, Memphis State University, and local geological and archaeological societies would contribute to the excavation of the site, known today as Chucalissa. They would rely upon the labor of CCC workers, students, and even convicts from a local penal farm.
In 1956, a museum, now called the C. H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, opened to provide increased public access to the archaeological remains. In 1962, the Tennessee Division of State Parks transferred the site to the Tennessee Board of Education, and Chucalissa became an important part of the anthropology and archaeology programs at Memphis State University. Today, the University of Memphis continues to administer Chucalissa and the C.H. Nash Museum. The site provides an important hands-on educational opportunity for university students and serves as a great cultural resource for the public.
The C. H. Nash Museum’s mission is “to protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site’s cultural and natural environments, and to provide the University Community and the Public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities on the landscape’s past and present Native American and traditional cultures.” The Ensley Plantation, T. O. Fuller Park, and the predominantly African American neighborhoods of Southwest Memphis form important parts of the area’s cultural environment. In the last few years, we have worked with members of the Southwest Memphis community to better tell this story. So far, this collaboration has resulted in an exhibit, created by nine student workers from the area, and several special events.
If the Civilian Conservation Corps workers had not been building a swimming pool in a park on this specific site in 1940, Chucalissa, the C. H. Nash Museum, and a significant amount of knowledge would never have existed. This lucky discovery enriched the culture of the Memphis metropolitan area greatly.
Emily Schwimmer, Visitors Services, C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa