Norvelle Dismukes papers
(Document/manuscript/pamphlet/archival material)

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LC Subjects
Adopted children -- Tennessee.
Adoptees -- United States -- Biography.
Adoptive parents -- Tennessee -- Biography.
African American families -- Alabama.
African American families -- Southern States.
African American families -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
African American mothers -- Biography.
African American music teachers -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
African American single mothers -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
African American teachers -- Biography.
African American women -- Alabama -- Wilcox County.
African American women -- North Carolina.
African American women -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
African American women -- Washington (D.C.).
African Americans -- Alabama.
African Americans -- North Carolina.
African Americans -- Southern States.
African Americans -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Alabama -- Rural conditions.
Asheville (N.C.) -- Description and travel.
Brown, Charlotte Hawkins, -- 1883-1961.
Camps -- New York (State).
Central High School (Nashville, Tenn.).
Conflict of generations -- United States.
Daniel Hand Training School (Nashville, Tenn.).
Discipline of children -- United States.
Dismukes family.
Dismukes, Alice, -- d. 1949.
Dismukes, Ami, -- (Aminata), -- 1988-
Dismukes, Chaing-tu, -- 1984-
Dismukes, Norvelle, -- 1914-1995.
Drug abusers -- United States.
Educators -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Extended families -- United States.
Families -- Alabama -- Wilcox County.
Families -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Family relationships.
Fern Rock Camp (Bear Mountain, N.Y.).
Fisk University.
Funeral rites and ceremonies -- Southern States.
Jackson, Oscar Robert, -- 1914-1988.
Jefferson Street (Nashville, Tenn.).
Man-woman relationships.
Middle class African Americans -- Southern States.
Middle class African Americans -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Mothers and daughters -- Biography.
Music teachers -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Nashville (Tenn.) -- Biography.
Nashville (Tenn.) -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.
Nashville (Tenn.) -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
Nashville (Tenn.) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
Nashville (Tenn.) -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
New York (N.Y.) -- Description and travel.
North Carolina -- Biography.
North Carolina -- Description and travel.
Palmer Memorial Institute (Sedalia, N.C.).
Parent and child -- Biography.
Parents of drug addicts -- United States -- Biography.
Pearl High School (Nashville, Tenn.) -- Alumni and alumnae.
Public schools -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Rose Park Junior High School (Nashville, Tenn.).
Rural African Americans -- Alabama.
Rural African Americans -- Southern States.
Rural families -- Alabama.
Sedalia (N.C.) -- Description and travel.
Simmons, -- Mrs. -- (Aunt Lu).
Single mothers -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Single mothers -- United States.
Teachers -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Washington (D.C.) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
Wilcox County (Ala.) -- Biography.
Wilcox County (Ala.) -- Description and travel.
Women -- Social life and customs -- Southern States.
Women -- Tennessee -- Nashville.
Women -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Sources.

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Document/manuscript/pamphlet/archival material
Physical Desc
.5 cu. ft.


Organization & arrangement of materials
Organization: I. Autobiography; II. Letters.
General Note
Materials housed in Special Collections Division of the Main Library, Nashville Public Library.
Restrictions on Access
In library use only. Available by appointment.
Scope and content: Series I. Autobiography of Norvelle Dismukes, written in 1982, provides a detailed account of her life, her family, her education, and her career. Generally written in chronological order, she has a novelist's eye for detail, and provides rich emotional and physical descriptions about the people in her life and her surroundings. She writes about her family origins in Wilcox County, Alabama; her adoption by relatives in Nashville, Tenn.; her neighborhood near Fisk University, near the intersection of 17th Avenue North and Jefferson Street, especially during the 1920s through 1950s; her education and childhood; her work as a music teacher, especially as she begins her career at Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina and later, as she joins Nashville city schools, teaching at Rose Park Junior High and Central High School. She writes of her decision to become a mother at age 37, when she discovered she was pregnant by a married man. She writes about her experiences as a long-distance and single mother, and the difficulties and concern she had for her daughter as they both experience "the generation gap" in the 1960s. The next to the last chapter is about Norvelle's coming to grips with the confession in 1981 by grown daughter Gwynelle that she was using drugs. This chapter uses a "flashback" technique as Norvelle seeks to retrace both her and her daughter's steps, as Norvelle wonders how such a thing could happen. The final chapter of the memoir, written in 1984, occurs when Gwynelle announces that she is pregnant. It is written in the form of a dialogue between mother and daughter, as Gwynelle talks about whether to continue the pregnancy or get an abortion.
Series II. Letters Letters from Gwynelle to her mother, Norvelle Dismukes, from 1988-1990, were written while Gwynelle was living in Washington, DC and Norvelle in Madison, Tenn. They describe Gwynelle's career, living situation (often sharing housing with others); friends and family; Gwynelle's two children, Chaing-tu (nicknamed "C-2") and Aminata (often "Ami"); emotions about her family, Norvelle, work, and children. She writes about her ex-husband, Eric, as well as her relationship with reggae singer Alpha Blondy. In contrast to the tension that appears in the final two chapters of Norvelle's memoir, Gwynelle's letters seek to heal rifts which may have occurred in her relationship with her mother. Also included is a funeral program for Oscar Robert Jackson Sr. (d. 1988); a get-well postcard sent to Gwynelle just two months before her death in 2009; a letter to Gwynelle from her "Aunt Dottie" giving details of Norvelle's birth and family history; and eight photographs of Norvelle, Gwynelle, Chaing-tu, and Aminata, from 1987-1990.
Preferred Citation of Described Materials
Cite as: Norvelle Dismukes Papers, Special Collections Division, Nashville Public Library
Terms Governing Use and Reproduction
Nashville Public Library does not have intellectual property rights to these materials. Copyright retained by donor.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Ami Dismukes;,Gift;,2013.,Acc. 2013.012.
Biographical or Historical Data
Norvelle Dismukes was born on September 8, 1914 in Alabama. Her mother, Lucille A. (last name never stated), was just 16 years old, black, and a tenant farmer on a cotton plantation owned by the Slawter family. The father (first name never stated) was the college-age white son of the plantation owner. Lucille gave her daughter the birth name of Camilla. Camilla’s great-aunt, Alice Dismukes, and her husband, James, lived in Nashville, Tenn. They were in their 50s and childless. They legally adopted Camilla on Oct. 27, 1915 and she was given the new name Norvelle Henry Dismukes. Her middle name was to honor James’ father, but as a teenager she chose to use the more feminine “Henrietta.” Norvelle always referred to her adoptive parents as “Mother” and “Daddy.” James died in 1918, after working several days in a row to remove wreckage from the infamous “Dutchman’s Curve” train wreck. Alice and Norvelle soon moved into a house at 1718 Jefferson Street, adjacent to the Fisk University campus where Alice worked in the laundry. This remained the family home for several decades. Alice was a strict disciplinarian, and occasionally had frightening, even violent, outbursts, particularly as Norvelle reached her teen years. Norvelle attended Daniel Hand Model School on the Fisk University campus, Washington Junior High, then Pearl High School. She entered Fisk University in 1931, obtained her Music Bachelor’s degree in 1935, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1937.
Biographical or Historical Data
A year after graduation, Norvelle began work as the head of the music department at Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina, where she taught from 1939 to 1944 and directed the “Sedalia Singers.” Summers she spent working as a counselor at Fern Rock Camp near Bear Mountain, New York, advancing from music counselor to assistant camp director. During this time, she also took additional short music and teaching courses, once at Columbia Teachers College, once at Juilliard. In 1943, she married T. LeRoy “Lee” Davis, but the marriage was short-lived; they were divorced by 1947. Around 1945, Norvelle had returned to Nashville, where she began teaching full time in the city schools, and taught private music lessons on the side. She also began caring for Alice as she began to age and experience health problems. Alice died in 1949.
Biographical or Historical Data
A few years later, at age 37, Norvelle suddenly found herself pregnant by a married man, who had a prominent career as an educator. As soon as school was out, she left for Asheville, North Carolina, where in the fall, she had her daughter, Stefani Gwynelle Dismukes. Initially determined to give her child up for adoption, Norvelle changed her mind, but left Stefani in the care of a Mrs. Simmons, who would come to be known in the family as “Aunt Lu.” Mrs. Simmons took care of Stefani for the first two years of her life, while Norvelle returned to teaching in Nashville, with visits to see her daughter when possible. When Gwynelle was about two years old, Norvelle brought her to Nashville where she continued to raise her. Not long thereafter, Norvelle decided to sell her Jefferson Street home, finding that constant sirens going to the nearby hospital, deteriorating neighborhood conditions, as well as impending interstate highway construction, made it an unpleasant neighborhood in which to raise a small child. They moved to a location on Acklen Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood. In 1970, as busing came to Nashville, teachers, like their students, were forced to change schools. Norvelle left her teaching position at Rose Park School, where she had been for many years, with great happiness, and began teaching at Central High School. Here she found conditions terrible: the school building was deteriorating; the student body was rowdy, unruly, and even violent; and she experienced racial harassment from students and staff. A teacher who was dedicated to her job of educating children, Norvelle felt like she was unable to accomplish anything. To the contrary, her principal informed her, “the students are all sitting down” – indicating that he considered that a significant step forward. The conditions were too much for Norvelle. Her ulcers and anxiety came back. She took a break to go to Asheville, but had to extend her time under doctor’s orders. She returned to Nashville, but then chose to take an unexpected early retirement, on disability. She soon moved to Asheville, where she visited often with “Aunt Lu” and other long-time friends. Around 1974, she moved to Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, but returned to Nashville again in 1977 amidst continuing health problems with her ulcers.
Biographical or Historical Data
Norvelle began writing her memoirs in 1982, in part on behalf of her daughter Gwynelle, and in part as a thereauputic exercise, “as a catharsis made almost necessary by recent events” and with “a feeling of moral responsibility to leave a record of what it was like to be me.” Norvelle died in Nashville on June 29, 1995, at the age of 80.
Biographical or Historical Data
Stefani Gwynelle Dismukes, daughter of Norvelle Dismukes, was born in 1952 in Buncombe County, North Carolina, near Asheville. Initially, as a single mother in her late thirties, Norvelle had planned to give her child up for adoption. However, "Aunt Lu" Simmons, who had a house where Norvelle lived during her pregnancy, cared for Gwynelle during the first two years of her life, with Norvelle visiting from Nashville when she could. Gwynelle called "Aunt Lu" "Mama" and Norvelle, "Mommie". Norvelle brought Gwynelle back to Nashville to live, where she raised her, at first in their home on Jefferson Street, near 17th Avenue North, and then at a residence on Acklen Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood. Gwynelle attended private Catholic school, although her family was not of the Catholic faith. As a young adult, she attended Colby College for two years, left briefly, then returned, graduating in 1973. She moved often during the 1970s and 1980s, living in Boston, Washington, D.C., Oakland, and Asheville. She had two children, a son, Chaing-Tu, born in 1984 and a daughter, Aminata, born in 1988. Gwynelle was a writer and poet, writing on subjects such as Kwanzaa, African spirituality, peace, environmental sustainability and responsibility, and other subjects. She lived much of her adult life in the Washington, DC area, but also spent ten years at The Farm near Summertown, Tenn. She also lived in Nashville, where she was deeply involved in the George W. Carver Food Park, EarthMatters Tennessee, local Juneteenth celebrations, the African Street Festival, and was founder of the Sankofa African Heritage Museum and "Women to the Nth Power" performance troupe. She moved to Asheville not long before her death from renal disease on Oct. 3, 2009.
In English
Ownership and Custodial History
In the custody of Ami Dismukes, granddaughter of Norvelle Dismukes. Loaned to the Nashville Public Library for photocopying for their collections, 2013. Original returned to donor, 2016.
photocopy;,2016;,Marty O'Reilly, volunteer.
process;,2016;,Linda Barnickel.
Accumulation and Frequency of Use
No further accruals are expected.


APA Citation (style guide)

Dismukes, N., & Gwynelle. Norvelle Dismukes papers .

Chicago / Turabian - Author Date Citation (style guide)

Dismukes, Norvelle, 1914-1995 and Gwynelle. Norvelle Dismukes Papers. .

Chicago / Turabian - Humanities Citation (style guide)

Dismukes, Norvelle, 1914-1995 and Gwynelle. Norvelle Dismukes Papers .

MLA Citation (style guide)

Dismukes, Norvelle, and Gwynelle. Norvelle Dismukes Papers

Note! Citation formats are based on standards as of August 2021. Citations contain only title, author, edition, publisher, and year published. Citations should be used as a guideline and should be double checked for accuracy.

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