Thousands of people were still celebrating after the Tennessee State University homecoming parade on Nov. 12 just before noon. Marching bands had just finished thundering down historic Jefferson Street toward the campus for nearly three hours.
The area around the intersection between Jefferson and 28th Avenue had turned into a festive block-party atmosphere.
Then a gun was fired.
In the parking lot of Wendy’s on 28th Avenue North, Lorenzo Vaughn, 19, and Eric Gray, 18, were walking away from the restaurant when a single bullet struck both of them, according to the Metro Nashville Police Department.
The two teens said they heard people arguing when they started to walk away and the shot was fired.
A Metro police officer was nearby, but hundreds of people scattered, and the gunman was never found. Vaughn and Gray were later treated and released from area hospitals.
It was the second time in as many years that this scene played out near the TSU campus during homecoming festivities.
Last year, 17-year-old Devonte Hawkins was shot in the chest at the same Wendy’s parking lot during homecoming activities. He was transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in critical, but stable condition.
Now, TSU officials are being forced to re-evaluate their annual celebration.
“[The shootings] are a concern, and it isn’t something that can be taken lightly,” TSU Alumni Association national membership chair Janet Merriwether said.
According to Metro Police, neither of the shootings involved TSU students, faculty or alumni. Instead, the problem stemmed from other members of the community.
“The TSU Homecoming event is a significant event for the Nashville area as a whole,” police spokesman Don Aaron said.
“You had hundreds and hundreds of people there, and you’ve got one person with a gun who chooses to fire it with everybody else around.”
Aaron said the police department did everything they could to increase safety. Metro had 42 officers at the parade, including eight “roving” officers. Last year, 33 officers were on duty.
Metro also beefed up their presence after the parade, keeping 25 officers in the area until past midnight.
“Well, what you can’t do is match person-for-person the crowd with a police officer, nor can you send that large outdoor crowd through wands or metal detectors,” Aaron said.
“There’s an element of civil decency that comes into play, and everybody there, with the exception of a very small few, come to be law-abiding and have a good time. It’s a shame that this one individual has created the problem.”
Merriwether echoed those sentiments.
“We have people without the kind of pride that having a college education will give you,” Merriwether said.
“The kind of pride in yourself and that self-motivation to do better does not exist entirely throughout Nashville, and that’s something to look at and work on, and hopefully you can get underneath a problem before it becomes bigger than it should be.”
But after two years in a row, Merriwether acknowledges that it is a problem — and one that she plans to address. She said the TSU Alumni Association will discuss it with executive board members.
In addition, Merriwether said safety is not just TSU’s responsibility — but that local businesses should also be accountable.
“Those businesses that are close to those areas need to take some responsibility,” Merriwether said. “It is not just for TSU to do, it’s for all of us to do.”
Decades ago, the TSU homecoming parade was held primarily on campus, starting near the Gentry Center and circling around 28th Avenue North. But Merriwether said it was still too early to determine whether relocation is an option.
“I do think that we should take an action, whether [the parade] remains centered on campus is another matter,” Merriwether said.
Outgoing TSU Police Chief and former Metro Police Chief Emmett Turner said keeping the parade on campus would be largely unrealistic due to the configuration of streets there.
“Well, this is a tradition at Tennessee State, and this is something people look forward to in this community every year,” Turner said. “I don’t know how you can move it to campus and have it just confined to campus unless you plan on having just one or two bands.”
TSU named Richard Briggance as Turner’s successor on Thursday. Briggance is a 35-year veteran of the Metro police department.
If TSU decided to make the parade more campus-centered that would coincide with a recent initiative by TSU interim president Portia Shields to possibly play two football games at Hale Stadium on campus next year (instead of current venue LP Field).
Turner said the increase in security this year wasn’t only to curb violence — it also helped with traffic issues.
“The dual purpose was to try to keep people moving and have enough officers in the area to try to prevent any shootings or any other illegal activities going on,” Turner said.
A year ago at homecoming, John A. Merritt Boulevard was gridlocked for hours as drivers found themselves trapped by the street’s dead end on TSU campus.
This year, a helicopter monitored the traffic at the parade to determine whether changes needed to be made.
“The purpose of the helicopter was to look and see if next year we might consider moving it maybe around on the back side of the campus,” Turner said. “We wanted to see where the crowds were and try to make some recommendations.”
If the parade were to move behind campus, in the vicinity of Dr. Walter S. David Boulevard, it would be away from commercial and residential areas. And a 20-year tradition of marching down Jefferson Street would be history.
The TSU homecoming committee plans to address the issue before next year, and Turner will be involved in the decision.
“One of the things we’ll be discussing is how to have this parade next year and how to make it safe,” Turner said. “I don’t know how you can predict whether someone will shoot in a crowd or not. … Those are things you just can’t forecast.”
As of press time, Metro Police were still searching for the gunman in the Nov. 12 shooting. Anyone with information is asked to call 74-CRIME. There is a cash reward.