The Knoxville 25: Some Reasons the World Might Care About Our Story

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

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The East Tennessee Historical Society’s new exhibit, Come to Make Records, is named for the entreaty that drew a diverse array of interesting musicians to the St. James Hotel on Wall Avenue in 1929 and 1930. It’s all about to be released in a handsome box set, thanks to an international effort, at next weekend’s Knoxville Stomp festival. The interactive exhibit offers lots of pictures and stories of musicians stirring the pot here even before the golden age of local radio. You can push a button and hear some of it.

You might have to be a geek like me to gawk for more than a minute at the 78s made by Charlie Oaks (“Moonshine” and “Drunkard’s Dream”) and George Reneau (“Wreck on the Southern 97” and “Lonesome Road Blues”). Blind Knoxville street musicians, they both recorded in New York in 1925, before Nashville had a single recording studio, before even the landmark Bristol sessions of 1927.

These ancient platters are rare testaments to these musicians who, after a moment of success in a fast-changing culture, died in obscurity—and to the overlooked role that Sterchi Brothers Furniture, who sponsored the records just after completing their big headquarters on Gay Street, played in the development of American popular music.

We’re still discovering our history, and maybe our reason for being.

Over the next six months, Knoxville will be celebrating its 225th anniversary. It’s a mark most American cities haven’t reached. But what does it mean?

Is it just a matter of endurance? Several events since the Chickamaugan invasion of 1793 could have removed this particular blot from the American map. There was a time, 25 years ago, that I suspected Knoxville was destined to one day be discernible mainly by its frequency of highway exits.

The city likes to think of itself as remote and contrary—it’s our handy excuse—but our history has affected American history. A friend suggested we look for the 25 most significant events in the city’s history. That is, the 25 reasons America should care we’re turning 225.

Some may be obvious. The launch of the Knoxville Gazette in 1791 marks the birthplace of journalism in this region. As the site of the three-week constitutional convention in early 1796, Knoxville is the birthplace of a state, the third state to be founded after the Revolution.

Sen. Hugh Lawson White, a Knoxvillian, ran for president in 1834-36. His national campaign was unsuccessful, but may have marked the beginning of a reaction to the status quo that some historians see, for better or worse, as the beginning of America’s two-party system.

The Civil War is hard to ignore, even if, as historians often conclude, Knoxville’s significance to the war was distracting Longstreet long enough to assure the Union victory in Chattanooga. It was a noisy, interesting time, and we’re still arguing about its relevance.

More historic here may be what happened after the war, when a Knoxvillian editor known as “Parson” W.G. Brownlow became a supporter of Reconstruction and hastened civil-rights legislation that brought Tennessee back into the Union before any other Confederate state, and brought blacks the right to vote, a right they still lacked in many Northern states.

Then there was the surprise coalescence of the tiny college on the hill into the University of Tennessee, which is, we might forget in the seasonal agonies about athletics, an institution of considerable note.

Knoxville’s railroad-fueled industrial boom after 1870 was, in tonnage and dollars, bigger than anything that ever happened here. But it’s hard to untangle one industrial development as more significant than another. Marble or beer? Iron or underwear? White Lily Flour or the first Dempster Dumpster? Or all those things?

What happened here in 1913, the National Conservation Exposition, the last and largest of three big fairs of its era, drew a million visitors and several major progressive leaders to Chilhowee Park for a two-month conversation on the thoughtful and sustainable use of land and natural resources. It should have been groundbreaking, and maybe it was.

Ten years later—10 years that included a major war, a deadly flu epidemic, and a couple of violent riots—Knoxvillians began in earnest on an effort to found a new national park. Led by Knoxvillians, including Annie Davis, the state representative who was our first female elected official, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park movement created one of the most locally inspired parks in U.S. history.

A more radical movement, the Wilderness Society, also coalesced in Knoxville, with the help of several TVA staffers, including Appalachian Trail founder Benton MacKaye, and also Knoxville attorney Harvey Broome.

Then there’s music. Knoxvillian Roy Acuff took what had been a homely tradition, a style heard mainly from street musicians with a guitar and a tin cup, and made it a national sensation, years before anyone called it “country music.”

And not long after, black musicians like Knoxville native Stick McGhee and white musicians like WROL broadcasters the Everly Brothers separately helped launch and refine something newer called rock ’n’ roll.

In 1956, Clinton High School desegregated, the first white public high school in the South to do so, as the result of a decision passed down by a Knoxville federal judge named Robert Taylor.

What difference did the 1982 World’s Fair make? As China’s first world’s fair since 1904, it was a step toward the world’s largest nation rejoining the world of nations. And the hypermodernist U.S. pavilion hosted what was also reputedly the first public demonstration of a touch-screen computer—though, as I recall, we weren’t encouraged to touch it.

What do you think? I’d like to hear other opinions of the most significant events in Knoxville history. Why does Knoxville matter to the world? I’d like to present some sort of an answer this year, and you may know of something I haven’t thought about. We’ll publish it all in a future issue.

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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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