There are events that happen in the world that you know mark the end of an era. John Massenburg Oden’s passing on June 21, 2020 is one of those events. Perhaps it is kismet that it occurred as we wade through the turmoil brought about by COVID-19. He carried with him the history of the Brentwood area, not just in his book, The Brentwood I Remember, but also in his genes. The Brentwood he told tales of fondly is hardly recognizable today, and yet that history is the sturdy foundation upon which the area has been and will continue to be built.
Maya Angelou has a quote, “The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.” John Oden knew his history, and he took the time to delve deeply into it. But more than anything he wanted to share it with others so they would be liberated by it, too.
His family can be traced back to 1815, when his first ancestor showed up on the tax records. And his great grandfather was one of the original trustees of Brentwood United Methodist Church, which he saw burn to the ground in 1936.
When he talked of Brentwood, you could almost see him as a young boy running through the first town of Brentwood in 1855 when it was located where Target is today — like some Tom Sawyer wannabe. Or cutting through the Brentwood Village of 1856, which was between Old Hickory and Church Streets to the north and south, respectively, and Franklin Road and the railroad to the west and east. Yet, he wasn’t born until 1931, on November 30.
Not a lot had changed in a little over 75 years. Brentwood was still not much more than a bump in the road with a pharmacy and Gulf Oil station on the corner of Old Hickory and Franklin Road that his grandfather and the grandfather of his friend, Alex Nobel, opened up in 1929. It became the social hub of the city. He met a lot of people there.
“He was around the pharmacy when I was a kid,” said Alex Nobel, “But he was seven or eight years older than me. And when you’re a kid, that’s a lot of years. His book actually brought us together about five or six years ago, but our families have been intertwined for generations.”
You see, Oden’s aunt and uncle adopted Nobel’s mother and brought her to Brentwood from South Georgia. His aunt and uncle were like another set of grandparents to Nobel. Then there were all of the business partnerships between the two families, including Nobel and Oden Construction created by John’s older brother Marion Oden, Jr. and Nobel’s father, Glenn.
“He was just a really good guy,” said Nobel, “caring, honest, and compassionate. And really smart.”
One thing that Nobel remembers well is John’s connection to the African-American community called Hardscuffle. “We knew a lot of the same people in that community,” said Nobel, “but I just knew them. He had a real connection….. He spent a lot of time telling their story in his book.”
“One of the groups I wanted to tell the story of in my book,” Oden said in an interview last year during Brentwood’s 50th Anniversary celebration, “was of the Black Community. There is not much written about that community, their importance to the development of Brentwood, and the Hardscuffle families. But I grew up with many of the kids. These were the families of slaves who settled along what is now Church Street, then moved to Nashville when their land was bought when the freeway came through.”
As a matter of fact, Oden made a point of going to the Hardscuffle Reunion in 2018, and every other year previous. You see, for ten years he lived on his grandparent’s farm that was near the area, and he really preferred the area’s school to the one he attended, and he used to love to go to the Black Churches.
Oden was a man who made connections with people, and remembered them. He was a rich resource to those working on Brentwood’s 50th Anniversary celebrations because he knew the stories from the beginning of the city, to the Civil War, to the railroad coming through, to the nightclubs along Franklin Road in the 1930s and 1940s, and the World Wars.
He saw the more recent changes. He looked forward to working on a second volume of history, from the 1950s through today. But that is a tale left for someone else to tell. Instead, he leaves with us a rich tale of the beginning, and now it is up to us to learn from his history and build on its strength as we face a new normal in the coming years. One very different from the one John Oden remembered.