February may be Black History Month, but Black history is American history, and in Knoxville there’s plenty to go around for the whole year.  This post highlights the Black history of this area along with attractions that have temporary and permanent exhibits, murals, statues, parks, and more.

Beck Cultural Exchange Center In Knoxville, TN
Beck Cultural Exchange Center

The Beck Cultural Exchange Center is exclusively dedicated to African American history in this region.  The mission of Beck is to be the place where African American history and culture are preserved, nurtured, taught, & continued. Beck is also involved in the restoration of the only remaining ancestral home of one of the greatest modern painters of the twentieth century, Beauford Delaney (more on him below). The restoration of this historic home will preserve an extraordinary piece of Knoxville history as the future Delaney Museum at Beck.  They also host events throughout the year, including Black History Month, Juneteenth, and the Eighth of August Jubilee (a celebration of the 1863 Emancipation in Tennessee).

Alex Haley Heritage Square Statue In Knoxville, TN
Alex Haley Heritage Square

While you’re in East Knoxville, visit the Alex Haley Heritage Square at Morningside Park. Haley was born in 1921 in New York and served in the Pacific theater during WWII. Following the war, he became the first chief journalist within the Coast Guard and retired in 1959. Retirement was short lived as he became the senior editor for Reader’s Digest Magazine. He followed this in working for Playboy Magazine, where he interviewed Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and many other notable people. He became well known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots. In his later years he acquired a small farm in Clinton, Tennessee (this is to the northwest of Knoxville) close to the Museum of Appalachia. Clinton is also home to the Green McAdoo Culture Center where you can learn about the story of the 1956 desegregation of Clinton High School.  While on the subject of writers, you may know that renowned poet Nikki Giovanni has strong ties to Knoxville.  Learn more about her connection, along with Alex Haley and other Knoxville authors on the Literary Walking Tour.

Cal Johnson/Historic Burlington Mural In Knoxville, TN
Cal Johnson/Historic Burlington Mural

Before heading to other parts of Knoxville, be sure to take a selfie in front of the The Cal Johnson Mural in the historic Burlington neighborhood which was painted by local artist @gregculture (on Instagram). Johnson was born into slavery in 1844 and as a teenager he tended horses at the McClung family’s estate in what is now modern-day Farragut. During the Civil War, he befriended saloon owner Patrick Sullivan (Sullivan’s is now Lonesome Dove in the Old City) and helped relay messages back and forth to Sullivan’s family while he was away fighting in the war. Following the war, he leased his own saloon and was able to purchase it in the 1880s. This followed with two more popular saloons, serving as an alderman on Knoxville’s city council from 1883 to 1885, and a throwback to his youth as he began purchasing thoroughbred racehorses. He established Knoxville’s only racetrack (now a street named Speedway Circle) near Chilhowee Park. Cal Johnson Park (across from the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum) was named in his honor in 1922. He passed away in 1925 and will be remembered as a pioneering African American entrepreneur, politician, and philanthropist. Learn more about Cal Johnson, this mural, and current attractions and dining in East Knoxville here.⁠

Black And White Photo Of Philadelphia Tribune Basketball Team
Philadelphia Tribune Basketball Team (Ora Washington third from right) | Credit Temple University Archives

Coming back into downtown, be sure to visit the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.  It’s the only facility of its kind in the world dedicated to the sport of women’s basketball.  The WNBA was founded in 1996, but the sport goes back over a hundred years.  The first African American women’s team was The New York Girls, founded in 1910.  Some other early teams include the Spartan Girls, Philadelphia Tribune Girls, Germantown Hornets, Chicago Romas, and the Chocolate Coeds.  Ora Washington, a member of the Philadelphia Tribune, was a 2009 Inductee to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.  If you visit in December, know that December is Black Womens Basketball History Month, so there may be something extra special in store – but any time of the year is worth a visit at the WBHOF to learn more about these incredible athletes.

Black & White Exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center In Knoxville, TN
Black & White Exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center

Heading into the heart of downtown you’ll find the East Tennessee History Center.  This facility is more than meets the eye; the main level is a museum dedicated to the history of this region of Tennessee, the second floor contains the Knox County Archives (permanent records of this historic county from 1792-present, including deeds, marriages, divorces, school records, various court records, and more), and lastly the third floor contains the McClung Historical Collection which has a variety of genealogical records including Cherokee and African American materials.  In addition to the main permanent exhibits that detail a variety of topics including the Civil War and Civil Rights, there are also rotating exhibits.  In 2020, the feature exhibit was Black & White: Knoxville in the Jim Crow Era (extended through February 2021).

Pictures On The Wall Of The Interior Of The Emporium Center In Knoxville, TN
Inside The Emporium Center

Stay on Gay Street and head north to the 100 Block (you’ll pass the Visit Knoxville Visitors Center on the left and cross Summit Hill).  At the end of the 100 Block, you come to a beautiful historic building known called The Emporium Center.  The Emporium is a great place to start your evening on the First Friday of every month, and contains multiple galleries with rotating monthly exhibits.  In addition to these galleries, the Emporium is home to many artists’ studios and arts and culture organizations.  They consistently make a conscious effort to ensure African American and Latino artists are represented in the permanent spaces; 30% of the artists with full-time artist studios are African American, and on First Friday they pay an African American musician to perform for the evening.  Other BIPOC artists are supported as well – in 2019 the Arts & Culture Alliance worked with Addison Karl, a Native American artist who painted the ‘Cassiopeia’ mural on the Market Square Garage, and the finished piece includes the faces of two local African Americans and one local Native American.  Other BIPOC artists featured in their galleries include Mene Manresa, Antuco Chicaiza, Anthony Donaldson, Sheryl Sallie, Jackie Holloway, and countless others that have been part of group or juried shows.  Additionally, the Emporium has been the home of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Commission's: Annual Gallery of Arts Tribute each January for several years.  This initiative was developed to recognize local artists and honor the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and features approximately 40-50 fine art works of all media selected for display in the lower gallery.

Portrait of James Baldwin 1944 Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin Untitled
Portrait of James Baldwin 1944 Beauford Delaney and James Baldwin Untitled

You haven’t left downtown yet, right?  Good, cause we’ve got more art!  The Knoxville Museum of Art has several pieces by African Americans including Maurice Brown, Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Charles Williams, John Wilson, Joseph Delaney, and Beauford Delaney.  Speaking of Beauford Delaney, the Beauford Delaney & James Baldwin: Through the Unusual Door exhibit was simply incredible and ended fall 2020.  If you missed it, not to worry: read this post and watch the virtual tour here.  Beauford Delaney was born in Knoxville in 1901 to prominent members of the African American community. His father was a Methodist minister. His mother was born into slavery and raised her children to know the injustices of racism and valued education. Delaney’s young life was filled with everything from the excitement of the jazz age to the horror of the lynch-mob riot of 1919 (a drama called Red Summer depicting this event was performed by the Carpetbag Theatre at the Bijou Theatre last year). He soon outgrew his art education and relocated to Boston, and then New York. Delaney arrived in NYC at the time of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression. He connected with a multitude of people (including James Baldwin) of all races, and he painted colorful canvases of urban landscape and people of this disenfranchised community. He lived a compartmentalized life; separating his gay bohemian circle of mostly white friends from his Harlem friends whom he feared would be uncomfortable with his homosexuality. In 1953 Delaney moved to Paris (Baldwin preceded his journey there) and his artwork continued to evolve. A few years after his passing, his friend James Baldwin acknowledged the impact Delaney had on his life by saying, “The first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist…He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion.”

Black Owned Businesses Leaders Sitting In A Meeting
Carpetbag Theatre

Now for some performing arts: the Carpetbag Theatre is Knoxville’s professional ensemble company that celebrated 50 years in 2019.  This organization was founded by Wilmer F. Lucas, a writer and actor from NYC, and Cleopatra Lucas, an artist and professor at Knoxville College and UT in 1969. The Carpetbag Theatre is a professional, multi-generational ensemble company dedicated to the production of new works. They work in partnership with community artists, activists, cultural workers, storytellers, and leaders to create original, theatrical works. Their mission is to give artistic voice to the issues and dreams of people who have been silenced by racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of oppression.

Interior View Of The Bijou Theatre In Knoxville, TN
Inside the Bijou Theatre

And of course we can’t forget our theatres! Knoxville has a rich performance scene with venues like the Tennessee Theatre (the official state theatre of Tennessee, opened in 1929 and integrated in 1964), and the Bijou Theatre.  The Bijou opened in 1909 and was the first integrated but segregated business in Knoxville. The second balcony had a separate entrance for African Americans on the Cumberland Avenue side of the building. The theater hosted performances by students at (HBCU) Knoxville College. This building also has some fascinating Civil War history too (more on that below). In particular, Knoxville has always had a great jazz scene – read more about those artists of days gone by here.

Tree And Bench By The Water In Carl Cowan Park In Knoxville, TN
Carl Cowan Park

Ready to spend some time in the outdoors?  Consider heading to Carl Cowan Park on the west side of town. This park is named for a Knoxville man born in 1902 who received his law degree from Howard University in DC, returned to Knoxville and was appointed the first African American Assistant District Attorney in Knox County in 1953. He was also was the plaintiff’s attorney for the NAACP, where he challenged segregation in the greater Knoxville area school systems and the University of Tennessee. Mr. Cowan was a close associate of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and was instrumental in the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision that ended the legal racial segregation of the public schools in America. Carl Cowan often said, “Change is hard to come by, but change will come” and thanks to his efforts, it did. He will be remembered as a great man who helped change the face of Knoxville and the nation.

Divided Loyalties Civil War Driving Tour and Civil War Trails Brochures
Divided Loyalties Civil War Driving Tour and Civil War Trails Tour guides (available in the Visitors Center)

For Civil War buffs, there are a lot of stories to uncover in Knoxville. By the time 1861 rolled around, this highly divided region voted on secession with 77% preferring to stay with the Union (although that didn’t happen; Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy).  Consider taking a drive and exploring the Civil War Driving Tour.  Sites include historic homes such as the Historic Ramsey House, Mabry-Hazen House, Crescent Bend, the McClung Museum, and much more.  lick that link to see an Instagram story preview!

Speaking of tours, enjoy exploring the Knoxville African American Heritage Guide, self-guided tour that highlights several points of interest that help explain the heritage of Knoxville’s African American community. Going back to the days when Knoxville became an established river town in the late 1700s, the images and descriptions show that African-Americans have been an integral part of every-day life in the community from the beginning.

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For more information on Black history in this region, here’s some helpful info from our friends at The Knoxville History Project; they share books and interviews from local African American historian Bob Booker.

Hope this inspired you to visit some of our attractions that contain a wealth of information about Black history, art, performance art, prominent individuals, and so much more!

Looking for Black owned restaurants and businesses in Knoxville? Head here.