The legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville has quietly moved a symbol of the Confederacy that long held a prominent spot in the 125 year-old building. According to the Nashville Scene, the sign, which read “1897 Confederate Gallery” in honor of an 1897 reunion of Confederate veterans at the Ryman, prominently hung from the upper lever of the auditorium, directly across from the stage in performers’ direct sightline.
Though the Confederate signage was sometimes covered and read “1892 Ryman Auditorium” during such high-profile events as a John McCain campaign visit in 2008 and the filming of a Netflix comedy special last year, the Confederate memorial has now been permanently removed from the main auditorium and added to a museum exhibit about the hall’s history.
“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 while standing in an upper level hallway that’s home to an extensive Ryman timeline and the Confederate sign, complete with an explanation of its history. “Or if you’re a fan that comes at night, not during the tour, you don’t know what it means either. This 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.”
Ewing said the sign was added a few months after thousands of former Confederate soldiers visited the Ryman for their annual reunion, with a local plantation owner and Confederate general leading a fundraising campaign to build the upper gallery of the Ryman to make enough room for the gathering.
“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. “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.”
Curiously, the sign that was moved to the museum is not even the original Confederate memorial, which appears to have disappeared sometime between the Grand Ole Opry’s departure in 1974 and the building’s 1994 renovation. When the Ryman re-opened in 1994 following extensive renovations a reader wrote a letter to The Tennessean newspaper praising the makeover, but wondering where the Confederate Gallery sign went.
“I’m sure after seeing that, and maybe having some other calls or old-fashioned written letters, Gaylord [Entertainment Company] probably decided to reproduce the sign and put it back up where it was,” Ewing said.