The three-story Cal Johnson building has been used only as a storehouse for decades. Facing State Street just south of Summit Hill Drive, it's not a building most people notice. Most unrenovated buildings aren't much to look at, and this one was just a clothing factory when it was built in 1898, and was never a very showy place. But with some care, this one may someday before too long be something like a tourist attraction. Its appeal has a lot to do with the name on the marker, high on the front: "Calvin F. Johnson."
But most cities in the world don't have a building with a story anything like this one. It offers an inspiring message both about the business acumen of an African American and, considering his success in a segregated state, a rare testament to the American Dream. In a country where a man born to be a slave can become a wealthy philanthropist, anything can happen.
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.
We forgot about Cal, over the years. Knoxville tore down all the buildings associated with him, including all of his once-famous saloons, like the Poplar Log and the Lone Tree, and the large State Street home he shared with his wife.
His story of succeeding by adapting to rapid and political economic changes would have been remarkable even if he were a white businessman. With the building saved, it's good to know we'll have a handy motive to tell it often.
It's a big, sturdy building, too, that would have a lot of promise for adding to downtown Knoxville's impressive resurgence even if we didn't know the remarkable story of who built it.