TSU Alum Who Designed, Constructed National Museum of African American Music Continues as Industry Trailblazer

Don Hardin at First Horizon Park. Courtesy photo of the Nashville Business Journal

By Lucas Johnson

NASHVILLE, TN (TSU News Service) — When Don Hardin drives by the National Museum of African American Music, the Tennessee State University alum can’t help but smile, proudly. That’s because the firm he owns managed the design and construction of the facility, and he credits TSU with giving him the tools as a young college student to make it happen. 

“I love the Blue and White,” said Hardin, who graduated in 1990 with a degree in architectural engineering. “TSU is a part of me. I strive to be excellent.”  

However, a seed of determination and success was planted in Hardin by his mother before he came to TSU. She raised Hardin and his three other brothers by herself. He said her tough love is what they needed growing up in a low-income part of Nashville.  

“My mother worked hard; she set standards for us,” said Hardin. “She kept us out of trouble. She had strict rules that didn’t seem fair at the time, but it turned out to be a good thing because some of the guys who were free to run the streets didn’t turn out so well. All of my brothers are doing well, and it’s because of her upbringing.” 

Hardin said his math teacher at Maplewood High School was also a major influence in his life. He said the teacher recognized his talent and arranged for him to visit TSU and its College of Engineering his senior year. The Big Blue won him over, and he enrolled at TSU in fall 1983.  

Because he also enjoyed art, Hardin decided to major in architectural engineering, where he met Dr. Walter Vincent, Jr., who at the time was head of the Architectural Engineering Department. Vincent also noticed Hardin’s drive and talent, and took him under his wing.  

“He was a very engaging guy,” recalled Hardin of Vincent. “He was always encouraging us to get out of Nashville and take trips to places like Chicago to study buildings.”  

Vincent passed away on Nov. 30, 2020, at the age of 89. But Hardin said he will never forget the advice and encouragement Vincent gave him that would eventually cement his career in his chosen field.  

Hardin said it was tough to get internships in architectural engineering. However, his peers in electrical and mechanical engineering were getting job opportunities. Hardin said he went to Vincent to change his major, but the professor talked him out of it.  

“He said, ‘If you stick with it, it’s going to pay off.’” Hardin recalled him saying. “So instead of giving him a change of major form, I tore it up and decided to stay with architectural engineering.”  

And he’s glad he did. Vincent was right. When Hardin graduated, he had three job offers. The one he selected took him out of town for about 10 years. But he returned to Nashville and eventually started his own company, the Don Hardin Group, which hit its 20-year mark this year.  

TSU alumna Lisa Johnson majored in architectural engineering at the same time Hardin did. She said the small group that made up their major was close knit, and that they encouraged one another. Johnson said she was one of four women in the program at the time, and that Hardin was like a brother to her.

“Don is a good guy, gracious, and hard-working,” said Johnson, who is a construction manager. “Him having this business that he has today, I’m not surprised.”

Hardin and his team have been players in some of Nashville’s largest projects, including the Music City Center, Hospital Corporation of America, Nissan North America, the First Horizon (Baseball) Park, and of course, the National Museum of African American Music that officially opened downtown last month.  

Hardin said what he enjoyed most about the National Museum of African American Music project was the number of other African American businesses involved in the construction.  

“We’re proud of what we did,” said Hardin. “What we’re even more proud of is the fact that a lot of other African Americans got involved in something that represents us.” 

Both Hardin and Johnson said they’re glad they stuck with architectural engineering, and they encourage aspiring engineers to consider the field because opportunities in it have grown over the years.

“There are more programs offered,” said Johnson. “It’s still not as common as civil, mechanical and electrical, but it has become more known.”

Regardless of the major, Hardin said students should contact alumni in their field, or an area of study they’re considering, for support.

 “TSU students need to continue to reach out; press us for opportunities,” said Hardin, whose firm offers an internship to college students.

And he added this advice to them, words that were also told to him years ago.  

“Know that you can achieve whatever you set out to do,” he said. “You can do it. You can be excellent.”  

Hardin is a member of the TSU Engineering Alumni Association, and the Omega Psi Phi Rho Psi Alumni Chapter of TSU.

To learn more about the Don Hardin Group, visit http://donhardingroup.com.

For more information about TSU’s College of Engineering and architectural engineering, visit https://www.tnstate.edu/engineering/index1.aspx