The Knoxville History Project Launches a New Look at Local History—and Jump-Starts Local Journalism

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A key part of the Mercury launch is the formation of a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit, an educational organization known as the Knoxville History Project.

It’s surprising, when you think about it, that Knoxville, almost 225 years old, has never had its own historical organization, perhaps not even a full-time staffer, to promote the city’s own story.

Knoxville’s the birthplace and first capital of the state of Tennessee. It was the site of Tennessee’s first newspaper, and first published books. It’s been the home, since 1794, of one of America’s oldest state universities. It has significant associations with the evolution of country music, the conservation movement, civil-rights politics, and several interesting industries. Knoxvillians have run for president, made major motion pictures, designed interesting buildings, painted interesting pictures, won Pulitzer Prizes.

Educational in purpose, the Knoxville History Project will be a conduit for information about all these things. For the next few years, I’ll be doing a lot of speaking, tour-leading, writing, researching, coordinating. I’ve resisted it for years, correcting people when they call me a historian. I was a reporter, damn it. Now, okay, I’m a historian. And strange as it may seem, there’s a lot of pent-up demand. We already have a long list of projects, most of them for other nonprofits.

Obviously, to say we’re the only Knoxville history organization is not to say we’re the only historical organization in Knoxville. This city is lucky to be the home of the East Tennessee Historical Society, which has funded and organized the best historical museum in the region. They’re in charge of the East Tennessee History Center, which in the last several years has become a successful gathering place for a wide variety of important events. But the ETHS is a 35-county organization, with board leadership and donor funding from as far away as Chattanooga and Bristol.

Upstairs in the same building is the Calvin McClung Collection, a historical reference library funded by the county—but it’s regional in focus, too, as you’ll see when you sign in and find the names of visitors from Kentucky, Georgia, and beyond. The best resource of its kind in the region, the McClung is popular with people researching genealogy.

The Knoxville History Project, which won’t be involved much in genealogy, will be stepping on no toes in that regard. McClung’s longtime director, Steve Cotham, sometimes gives learned presentations on the history of Knoxville, but he’s a busy man, involved daily with supervising a staff of librarians collecting, organizing, and preserving huge amounts of historical material for the region’s biggest and best-organized historical library.

What I do would be impossible without these other, larger organizations. The focus of the Knoxville History Project, a more modest organization in terms of budget and staffing, will different from theirs—it will be the city of Knoxville itself.

Many, perhaps most other cities Knoxville’s size and age, have either a public office of historian or an organization devoted to the history of the city.

There’s a handy example downriver.

Chattanooga is formally part of the ETHS, and as you enter their museum on Gay Street, you’ll see a large mural of downtown Chattanooga. The museum’s current featured exhibit, Made in Tennessee, is very interesting and worth a visit, even if it has more about Chattanooga than Knoxville.

But while Chattanooga is celebrated by the ETHS’ facilities in Knoxville, Chattanooga also has its own historical organizations devoted to the history of Chattanooga itself, and has for many years. The $10.5 million Chattanooga History Center is due to open this year. I don’t count on it to have a whole lot about Knoxville. Perhaps it suggests there’s room for some modest nod to civic history in this larger, older city.

Knoxville’s history is vital and complex enough that it might call for an office with at least one staffer. I don’t expect to be launching any museum projects, nor organizing formal collections, but I’ll be giving talks, leading tours, writing articles and books, and making connections between authors and journalists and visitors and other local historical or cultural resources.

I’ll also be writing a weekly column and other features for the Knoxville Mercury. Part of the package we’ve worked out is that the Knoxville History Project will buy a full-page ad in the Mercury, and fill it every week with little stories, timelines, biographies, Knoxville history that’s relevant to the news when possible.

To some extent, my new role is similar to my old one. I’ve been guest-speaking to college and high-school classes for 20 years, as well as to retiree groups and professional groups and veterans’ groups and church groups.

I’ve given these talks on the perhaps dubious premise that it was useful publicity for the newspaper I wrote for. Regardless of how I’m introduced, more often than not, someone comes up afterward and assumes I’m employed by the city, or the Chamber, or the university, or the tourist bureau. Since the early ’90s, I’ve given more than 1,000 talks about Knoxville and its history, led perhaps 300 walking tours, and on several occasions I’ve been recruited to be the official guide for a notable visitor. But that has never been part of my job description. Now it is. In fact, early indications suggest that I’ll be picking up the pace considerably.


The Knoxville History Project will also be the governing organization, the “sole member,” of a new not-for-profit newspaper called the Mercury.

It’s easy to say that a newspaper can and should work as a nonprofit, or that Knoxville needs a historical organization. As it turns out, starting a nonprofit or two is no easy task, as we’ve been learning the hard way these last three months. Nonprofits often require months or even years of preparatory work, and they don’t usually involve unemployed people hoping for a paycheck, or the urgency of recapturing the momentum and readership of a recently scuttled newspaper.

In the early ’90s, it took Metro Pulse almost four years to build up from a slim entertainment biweekly to a substantial and respected weekly. At the time, it seemed a healthy evolution. We don’t have time to rebuild it that way.

Also, we don’t currently have an administrative staff that’s good at filling out forms and tracking things like IRS audits.

So we found a way to expedite things. The preservationist organization Knox Heritage, which has appreciated Metro Pulse’s in-depth coverage of preservation issues for years, graciously offered to help. To make things work more quickly and certainly, the Knoxville History Project has organized as a supporting organization of Knox Heritage. Although we’ll have a mission of our own, to promote interest in the history of Knoxville, that educational task in itself supports what Knox Heritage does. People aren’t often interested in old buildings unless they’re interested in history to begin with.

As several have noted, some nonprofits with strong identities of their own, like the Cornerstone Foundation, are actually supporting organizations of other nonprofits (in Cornerstone’s case, the East Tennessee Foundation). Knox Heritage’s leadership sees our mission as inherently supportive of theirs, and they assure us they just want us to do what we do, knowing that history is always a big part of that.

Education is commonly held to be so important that it deserves public support. Adults get most of their education about the important issues of the day, and about the complexities of their community, from journalism. That’s why the Mercury is germane to the mission of the Knoxville History Project.

The Knoxville History Project will be entirely educational in nature. The Knoxville Mercury will be substantially educational in nature. The board of the Knoxville History Project, which is made up of prominent community leaders, journalists, and historical authors, will be charged with watching it. There are firewalls built into the organization. The Knoxville History Project can’t tell the Mercury what to cover and how to cover it, just advise it if the paper’s general course ever veers away from community education and the public good.

The educational mandate doesn’t scare us much. Good journalism is always educational. And for all of our reputation for impudence or “sass,” Metro Pulse was mostly educational without anyone telling us to be. I became aware of that fact in recent months when we were trying to locate articles we wrote but no longer had easy access to. At Lawson McGhee Library and at the McClung Collection, the subject files pertaining to Knoxville, its musical heritage, its neighborhoods, its literature, its minority communities, are stuffed with Metro Pulse stories. Published collections of Metro Pulse stories have been used as textbooks in high-school and college classes. Telling the ever-unfolding story of Knoxville is just what we do.

The KHP’s board (see list, at right) consists of 10 people of accomplishment. They all miss Metro Pulse, but they all have different points of view about the city and its strengths, and will serve as an able guide for our efforts with the Knoxville History Project and, indirectly, for the Knoxville Mercury.

They, and we, serve for the benefit of the people of Knoxville.

A Historic Board

Here is the board of directors of the Knoxville History Project, which oversees the whole organization:

Jacqueline Arthur is executive director of the Three Rivers Market, the fast-growing food cooperative, which recently built its successfully popular state-of-the-art edifice on the edge of Happy Holler.

Linda Billman was longtime managing producer for WBIR’s famous Heartland Series, and for the last few years she’s been general manager of public-radio station WDVX. She’s a scholar of Americana music.

Rick Blackburn is a construction project manager known for his hard work on some preservationist triumphs like the Kern Building and Westwood, and he’s current president of the board of Knox Heritage.

Robert Booker, former executive director of the Beck Cultural Center, is a former state representative and city councilman, as well as author of books and newspaper columns about the black experience in Knoxville. He was also an effective leader of the local movement to dismantle racial segregation here.

Ernest Freeberg, author of multiple books of national consequence—read his fascinating 2013 book, The Age of Edison, about how the electric light changed American culture—is a University of Tennessee professor and chairman of UT’s history department.

Duane Grieve is one of Knoxville’s most important architects and developers, as well as a member of City Council. His astonishing transformation of the historic beaux-arts Miller’s building, currently headquarters of KUB and several other offices, was a landmark in downtown’s resurgence–but his firm designs modern buildings, too, like UT’s conspicuous new John D. Tickle Engineering Building.

Nelda Hill, longtime reference librarian and manager of the Lawson McGhee Library who has helped me with dozens of Metro Pulse stories over the years, is also organizer of the Knoxville Jazz Festival, as well as producer of a work in progress, a documentary about jazz in Knoxville.

William Rukeyser, former managing editor of Fortune magazine and founding editor of Money magazine, came to Knoxville to be editor in chief of Whittle Communications, but stayed to be chairman of UT’s University Medical Center, and has in recent years been a key supporter of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.

Mary Linda Schwarzbart, a grant-writing adviser and community leader and board member of multiple nonprofits for many years, was recent interim executive director of the Community Design Center. She was founding member of the East Tennessee Civil Rights Working Committee, and has served as president of several charitable organizations, including the Knoxville Jewish Community Family of Funds, of which she was a founding board member.

Joe Sullivan, former Wall Street Journal reporter, and co-founder of the Chicago Options Board Exchange, among other things, who owned Metro Pulse from 1992 to 2003, and was the publisher responsible for turning what had been mainly an entertainment biweekly into a respected award-winning news weekly.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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