A prominent sign at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium that honored an 1897 reunion of Confederate veterans of the American Civil War has been permanently taken down.
The “1897 Confederate Gallery” sign that directly faced whoever was performing at the 125-year-old theater is now part of a museum exhibit highlighting the venue’s history, Nashville Scene reports.
“If you come to the Ryman [as] a big name performer and you’re looking right out at the center of the balcony and you see that sign, you don’t know what it means,” historian and Ryman consultant David Ewing told the Scene. “Or if you’re a fan that comes at night, not during the tour, you don’t know what it means either. (The museum) is the appropriate place to have the sign and tell the story of 125 years of the Ryman and particularly how the gallery got built.”
A spokeswoman for the Ryman could not immediately be reached for comment when contacted by Amplify.
The Ryman, built in 1892, is a staple of Nashville history. It’s the place where bluegrass music began – and the spot where Johnny Cash met June Carter. It’s considered one of the best venues in the world and is the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.
The Confederate sign had been put up at the Ryman after 10,000 soldiers who had fought for the South spent three days there for a 1897 reunion. A subsequent fundraising effort took place to build a balcony above the main floor.
“If they didn’t come [to the Ryman], their Plan B — or maybe their Plan A — was they were going to go to the [Tennessee] Centennial Exposition … and build a temporary building for them to have their three-day convention in,” Ewing said, according to Billboard. “The temporary building would’ve cost a little over $2,000 in 1897 money, and they had budgeted that, and since they came [to the Ryman] they didn’t have to build a temporary building. After their convention was over, they were doing their accounting and they had $2,300 left in their budget, so they donated it to the Tabernacle [the Ryman was then referred to as the Union Gospel Tabernacle] because the Tabernacle built this balcony that cost $12,000. They kind of felt a moral obligation to give their remaining convention money to this.”
The building for years hosted church services, as hinted at today by its stained glass windows and pews for seats. The building’s religious roots began in 1885, when evangelist Sam Jones began holding tent revivals at the site. The impromptu services were attended by as many as 5,000 people, including steamboat captain and prominent Nashville businessman Thomas G. Ryman, according to the venue’s website. Ryan was so moved that he decided to build the Union Gospel Tabernacle, a place of worship. The name was changed after Ryman’s death to honor his efforts.
The Ryman at the time also had hosted live performances and gatherings, including the Confederate Veterans’ Association event. The same year of that event, the Ryman was the site of graduation ceremonies for Nashville’s Meharry Medical College – the first Southern medical school to admit black students.
After the veterans event, the balcony was named the Confederate Gallery. The original sign facing the Ryman stage was somehow lost over the years, but a reproduction was put in place after a 1994 renovation. According to the Scene story, the Confederate signage was usually covered during high-profile public events, including a 2008 visit by John McCain when he was running for president and the filming of a comedy special that aired on Netflix.
A sign reading “1892 Ryman Auditorium” will now adorn the balcony.
The Ryman earned Pollstar’s Theatre of the Year honors five years in a row, between 2010 and 2015. The Ryman is currently ranked twenty-fifth in the world and nineteenth domestically based on year-to-date tickets sales in the Pollstar Theatre category, according to its website. It has also received Venue of the Year acknowledgments from the Academy of Country Music and the International Entertainment Buyers Association. The Ryman was recently named Venue of the Year by the Country Music Association.
Pop star Harry Styles performed at the Ryman Monday night. The Tennessean reported that the 2,000 fans’ screams were so loud it was remarkable that the auditorium’s stained glass windows were still intact afterward.
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