Cal Johnson
Cal Johnson image provided courtesy of the Knoxville History Project

He was born just around the corner on Gay Street in 1844. Until President Lincoln started leaning toward emancipation during the Civil War, when Cal was in his late teens, he had no reason to believe he'd ever be anything but a slave. But as a free man he was a hard worker, and in his early years took on some jobs most people didn't want, like moving the corpses of soldiers who'd been buried too hastily on the battlefield. He made enough money to start a grocery, then a saloon, then another. By the time he built this building, a clothing factory then next door to his own home, he owned a whole chain of saloons, as well as Knoxville's main horse-racing track. Soon, the middleaged ex-slave would be establishing one of Knoxville's first movie theaters, hosting one of Knoxville's first automobile dealerships, and then greeting the first landing of an airplane in local history, at his old racetrack in East Knoxville. When he died in 1925, he was a very wealthy man, by black or white standards.

He will be remembered as a pioneering African American entrepreneur, politician, and philanthropist.

This mural was painted in the Historic Burlington neighborhood of East Knoxville by local artist Greg Dorsey.  To find this and other murals, head here.  Cal Johnson Park was named after him, check that out here. To find more attractions and dining options in East Knoxville, head here.