Black History Month
The African American history of East Tennessee is a mosaic of moments and people who lived and struggled in this area of Appalachia. Pre-Civil War, the region was home to people of color, both slaves and freedmen. After Jim Crow, segregation, Civil Rights movement, and the era of urban renewal greatly impacted the lives of these families, causing displacement, social tensions, and migration. These stories come alive in cultural centers across the region. Here are some places and upcoming events to learn more about Black History in East Tennessee.
East Tennessee has long been a hub of railroads and commerce bringing people of all nationalities to find jobs. As people moved into the area, they brought with them a rich history of music and culture. Sharing those traditions was often expressed through the arts. Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong and Clarence Beeks are two musicians that greatly influenced genres of music respectively.
On the east side of Knoxville, a young man by the name of Beauford Delaney was learning his craft through the sponsorship by of well-known portraitist Lloyd Branson. While Mr. Branson was white, he saw great potential in this young Black man and sponsored him to attend art school in Boston, MA. Delaney was one of the influencers during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance when artists began celebrating their identity as Black Americans. He inspired activists such as novelist James Baldwin to see African American history entwined with American history. During Black History month, his work will be on display at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
A Civil Struggle
The Green McAdoo Cultural Center and the Beck Cultural Center are two of the East Tennessee story keepers for the civil struggle in the region. The Green McAdoo Cultural Center interprets the story of the Clinton 12 and the first secondary school to integrate in America’s South. The building is named for Green L McAdoo who served his country for 20 years in the segregated 24th Infantry known as Buffalo soldiers. It is fitting that the history of Green McAdoo Center represents the strife found in East Tennessee Jim Crow through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
Equally rich in storytelling is the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville and their collection of writings, newspaper clippings, photos, and audio recordings of African American life in East Tennessee from the late 1800s through Urban Renewal to present day. The Center’s mission is to preserve these artifacts, but more broadly they seek to honor the rich heritage and cultural that African Americans brought to the region through storytelling. On February 15 in recognition of Black History, they are hosting events across Knoxville. One of these is a living museum and play titled “Let the Children March.
Communities of Unity
Engaged citizens are often the catalysts making changes for their communities and the people that live there. Segregation of people, whether by choice or by legal means, has often led to disparities in education and social mobility. Booker T Washington, Tuskegee Institute, and Julius Rosenwald, President of Sears and Roebuck and notable philanthropist, joined forces to build schools in the segregated South for Black students. One of these Rosenwald schools is located in Newport TN and stands as a testament to a united community’s effort to bring education to children who were not allowed to attend schools based on the color of their skin. The building has been restored and re-purposed to serve the larger community.
The Underground Railroad was active in many counties in East Tennessee. Slaves escaping the Deep South would be “conducted” along the secretive routes to freedom in the North. The Quakers, who believed that human all beings are equal, were one of the first nationally organized groups helping African Americans escape slavery. The Quaker communities of Greenback, Maryville, and Friendsville, TN were known as safe houses for slaves traveling the secret routes of the Underground Railroad. Further north in the Cumberland Gap, the Underground Railroad operated to guide people across the mountains and into Kentucky on their way to the promised freedom north of the Ohio River. How fitting that a passage through the mountains which expanded the western frontier for pioneers willing to endure hardship and danger to build new lives would in a few decades serve as escaping slaves seeking their freedom to build new lives as free men.
The 9 Lakes Region is filled with culture and heritage. Best known for recreational assets of beautiful lakes and mountains, it is easy to forget that the region is also a significant destination for history including Daniel Boone’s frontier, Civil War, Trail of Tears, the Atomic Bomb, and Black History. One of the best things about the above listed locations is that each location is ideally suited for a day of discovery and most are free to explore.