Finalist for Nicest Place in America: Gallatin, Tennessee
n April 2016, a white police officer in Gallatin, Tennessee shot and killed an African American woman during an eviction gone bad.
With the country already on edge over racially charged police shootings and the protests and counter-protests that followed, Gallatin, a fast-growing suburb of booming Nashville, was primed to blow. But city hall quickly moved to share information with leaders in the African-American community that showed that the police officer acted properly—what seemed like it might be injustice was instead merely tragedy.
What could have become a protest turned into a prayer vigil, organized by religious and civic leaders from across Gallatin’s diverse community—not to “sweep it under the rug,” said Derrick Jackson, leader of First Baptist Church, founded 152 years ago by an ex-slave, but to consider the incident “prayerfully and proactively.”
“The goal was to find out if it could have been avoided. Did the officer handle himself with the highest level of professionalism? Was there a way to handle it without her losing her life? We asked the hard questions,” Jackson said.
The officer’s body camera would confirm that he’d been in a truly “tough spot,” Jackson said: the woman had charged him aggressively, wielding an axe.
But the police still “made adjustments,” Jackson said, rethinking their protocols and training practices—and keeping the door wide open to hear concerns. “The chief has given us his personal open invitation: if you feel you’ve been unjustly profiled, you call us.”
Mayor Paige Brown, one of Gallatin’s biggest boosters, says that kind of approach—compassionate, respectful, responsible—is what will keep Gallatin a nice place to be for everyone, even as it grows and diversifies.
“We’ve got to retain our character, to protect our sustainability,” she said.
And if the city still has its challenges, Jackson said, they’re a far cry from the sorts of things he saw growing up in Mississippi. In Gallatin, he said, he’s found people of all races and faiths willing to work together for both economic justice and “racial healing,” he said. His church regularly teams up with white churches for projects and prayer, he said.
And when diverse congregants of Gallatin get together, Jackson said, what they usually find aren’t unbridgeable gaps, but shared values.
“Black or white, justice is important. Dignity is important. This pride in our town is important, “ Jackson said. “We’re all on the same team. I don’t want to paint it as a perfect place. But the posture is, we’re going to try to do better.”
[pullquote]“Black or white, justice is important. Dignity is important. This pride in our town is important."[/pullquote]
A Growing City, A New Approach
Ask people what’s so special about Gallatin, and they’ll say, “it’s our small-town values.”
“You open the door for people. You let women go ahead of you. That kind of stuff,” said Josh Cross, a local reporter at The Gallatin News.
Residents speak of a community that values family, faith, and a fair shake. They’ll talk about how people work together, help their neighbors, and wave to each other as they drive through town (“I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ll drive through a neighborhood and someone will be out walking and they’ll wave,” said Cross”). In a nation where change is constant, they’ll tell you that Gallatin holds fast to the old-time habits of an old-fashioned small place.
Which is kind of funny—because Gallatin isn’t a small town anymore. It’s a boom town.
Founded in 1802, Gallatin is a sprawling, green place of modest homes and businesses spreading out over the gentle hills of the Cumberland River valley. A cozy business district lines Main Street in the downtown area, while the stately Sumner County Courthouse anchors the historic town square; beyond lies a mix of older neighborhoods, open fields, and newly-developed cul-de-sacs.
The biggest local employers include the hospital, the community college, and the Gap’s regional distribution center; the river and nearby Old Hickory Lake offer swimming, boating and fishing; historic homes and forts dot the county, and theater and arts events—many featuring groups from nearby Nashville and Hendersonville—fill the summer calendar.
Over the last thirty years, Gallatin has grown from under 10,000 people to over 40,000—a poster child for fast-growing central Tennessee. Once primarily an agricultural hub, Gallatin now attracts people and industry from all over the country: employers looking for low taxes and quality workers; affluent retirees looking for good weather and golf; immigrants and Americans of every color and background looking for jobs and opportunity.
The town is fairly diverse. About 75 percent of the population is white while most of the rest are African American, along with strong Latino, Romanian, and Sudanese communities. The Sudanese community came in the 1980s when Gallatin welcomed many of them as refugees. Its African-American population is deep-rooted; among the local institutions is a black church founded by an ex-slave which has been at the same site for 150 years and will celebrate that anniversary in October. In that whole time, apparently, it has had only six ministers.
The kind of growth the town has experienced can challenge any community, and Gallatin is no different. “We’re not perfect,” says Mayor Brown. “Stuff does happen.”
But what distinguishes Gallatin, residents will say, is the way people respond.
“There’s a phrase we often use around here—‘We can do better,’” said Jackson. “We start from the perspective of, ‘Let’s not point fingers. Let’s work together.’
That’s been Gallatin’s approach for a long time, says Mayor Brown, and that’s what will keep the city thriving even as it grows and changes.
“What I always say is, Gallatin has an opportunity,” she said. “If we can build a community here, we can be a model for the entire country.”
Everyone Is Welcome
Dayna Reid knew there was something special about Gallatin when she told a police officer that she’d lost her wife’s diamond ring—and he didn’t blink.
“No one cared that we have a house with two moms,” she said. “They were just so incredibly warm.”
Reid had come to Gallatin to check out a school for the couple’s daughter and make a few other stops. At some point she realized she’d lost her purse, with her wife’s heirloom jewelry inside. So she called the police, who sent an officer to help.
Reid doesn’t typically come right out and tell people she’s gay, but on this day there was no hiding it: “My daughter was telling him, ‘My mama is going to kill my mommy!’ And he didn’t bat an eye,” Reid said. “He proceeded to spend hours with us, digging through trash cans. He was so warm with her. It was so refreshing to have that normalcy.”
As a banker who spent six years making loans in the area, she knew Gallatin as “one of the more rural markets” in central Tennessee: a working class town with a smattering of small businesses and old-money families. Such towns aren’t always friendly, she said. “This region can be very devout, and with a two-mom household, it can be really difficult.”
But she already had a good feel about Gallatin. In a state where some discrimination against gays is permitted by law, Sumner Academy was one of the few private schools in the region that would even consider her daughter’s application. The encounter with the local police clinched it, and Reid eventually wrote to the chief of police to praise his officer.
It’s the kind of story that Mayor Brown loves to hear.
Beyond healing racial and cultural divides in tough, tragic situations and welcoming a diverse set of newcomers, Gallatin is full of stories of random acts of niceness. Take that of Gabby Howell—a little girl with a debilitating brain disorder who wanted nothing but her own school bus, and got one, courtesy of her mother’s students.
“It was just so sweet,” said Amy Howell, a teacher at Gallatin High School. “To see that they want to give back like that—they don't want to do it for the glory. They want to do it because they love you.”
Gabby, now 12, suffers from a rare disease that has left her “like a little 3-year-old,” Howell told ABC News. But she’s a cheerful, friendly kid with a particular love for cars, trucks and ambulances. When asked last year what she wanted for Christmas, Gabby named only one thing: “A real school bus.”
When Howell’s students got wind of that, it was game on. They raised money, found an old bus, and wrangled volunteers to turn it into a rolling playhouse. Last December they towed it to Gabby’s house, complete with jolly old St. Nick behind the wheel—to Gabby’s immense delight.
“She ran to Santa and said, 'I love you Santa, thank you so much,” one student recalled. “She almost started crying.”
To Gallatin High’s principal, Ron Becker, it was a heartening example of local values in action. “That's our goal,” he said. “Not just academics, but to develop good citizens."
And to Mayor Brown, it was just the latest in a long Gallatin tradition. As a child in the 1980s, Brown watched her mother teach English to African refugees; Gallatin is now home to a thriving Somali community.
Today, as mayor, she sees similar acts constantly. When a beloved local pastor was stricken with cancer, residents raised thousands of dollars. When area charities need transportation, a local business owner lends them the busses he rents to Nashville stars. And when local faith leaders wanted to boost their impact, they created the Shalom Zone, now a thriving nonprofit offering everything from summer camps to job training for kids, teens and adults from every walk of life.
It’s an approach that starts with the grassroots and carries right up to City Hall, Jackson said.
“As an African-American, I can easily go downtown and talk to the mayor. I can talk to the police chief,” he said. “Unlike some places I know, if there’s an issue, they’ll get right on it.”