Ever wonder about that corner, that park, that statue, that building, that graveyard, that other thing, and how it got there? My organization, the Knoxville History Project, is putting a new book out, a pretty big one, and we’re pretty sure that everybody who finds themselves in Knoxville, whether for a weekend or a career, will find it interesting. It’s a guide to the history of the city. 

Knoxville Skyline courtesy of Shawn Pemrick
Knoxville Skyline courtesy of Shawn Pemrick

Knoxville’s not like any other place. It has its own story, and historians do find Knoxville pretty fascinating, a city that on the one hand tells a tale not exactly like that of any other city, but somehow also helps explain much of American history. Maybe that’s not surprising, considering that Knoxville was founded during George Washington’s first term as president, right in the middle of the original part of the United States, representing the South, the North, the East, and the West. 

But in fact lots of what’s new about the city—from the bakeries and coffee shops and brewpubs and theaters of the downtown area, where most of the new businesses are in pre-1940 buildings, to Ijams Nature Center, to Neyland Stadium, reflects Knoxville’s complicated past, in ways that seem active and lively today. 

Alex Haley Statue
Alex Haley Statue courtesy of Knoxville History Project

It’s been a very long time since there’s been any sort of a published historical guide to the city. There has never been one like this one. We’re trying to tell as much of the story of the city we can see today, with images both historical and current, emphasizing sites you can still visit. Included are special sections on parks and gardens, cemeteries, museums, neighborhoods (there’s a big section on downtown, and another on UT), historic homes, the Civil War, literature, and music. We touch on some big, deep, and sometimes controversial subjects, but we have tried to pack as much into a few words and images as we can. 

It has a working title of “Knoxville,” subtitle soon to be announced. It will be released around Thanksgiving.

We tried to make it a guide easily accessible for the first-time visitor, but we guarantee there’s stuff in there that elderly natives didn’t know. 

Brownie and Stick McGhee
Brownie (L) and Stick McGhee together with some friends ca. 1948 courtesy Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound

Much of the book reflects the research I’ve done across decades as a journalist (my first local historical column was back in 1980, but I developed a particular reputation for my forays into Knoxville’s past later, when I wrote something called “Secret History” for Metro Pulse). But it has really been a team effort, with enormous logistical, editorial, and illustrative help from my talented colleague Paul James, as well as designer Whitney Sanders at Robin Easter Design (they’re the folks who made our Tennessee Theatre book so memorable). 

Helping to fund the project are Visit Knoxville, Pilot Flying J, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, among a few other private individuals to whom we’re grateful.

The Knoxville History Project is an educational nonprofit, the only organization dedicated to the history of the city of Knoxville. For more, see knoxvillehistoryproject.org. We do a great many things, but part of my job is that I give a whole lot of talks and tours. I hope this book gets around, even if it means that people won’t need me in person quite as much.