Our Best Friend and Mother: The Real Belle Morris

It's a school. It's a controversy. It's a former voting place that lost its status over what critics claim was a politically based charge about handicap access. This will be the first year in many decades that voters haven't been able to register their preferences at Belle Morris, on Washington Pike. A Republican election commission closed the traditional center of one of the county's biggest Democratic precincts, with an explanation, surprising to some, that it wasn't handicap accessible, and instructions that voters should instead drive to the Larry Cox Senior Recreation Center on Ocoee Trail.

It actually took a question from a Republican, a fellow attendee at a Baker Center lecture—a former mayor and ambassador, in fact—to get me wondering, who, or perhaps what, was Belle Morris?

Belle means beautiful, of course, and some might conclude that Belle Morris was, like Nashville's Belle Meade, just the name of some old antebellum plantation that happened to be in the vicinity. At the library I learned what I probably should have known already, given my peculiar vocation. Belle Morris was a person, and a pretty remarkable one.

It's funny how we name things for people, as if it's a very big deal, and then within a decade or two forget the person herself.

Often it turns out to be some philanthropist, making a late-life gesture at immortality. Sometimes, when it's a woman's name on a building or other institution, it's the wife or daughter of a philanthropist. Sometimes, more often than you'd think, it turns out to be someone who didn't have much to do with the building or institution in question.

In this case, it was a woman who got her hands dirty, literally, making that school what she wanted it to be.

She was born Belle Karns four years after the Civil War. An especially pretty girl, perhaps even beautiful, she had options. But even in the late Victorian era, her interest was less in marrying and starting a family than in teaching kids who were already here. She went to UT, apparently in one of the first classes that allowed women, and taught at several different elementary schools on the rural fringes of the city. For several years she taught at the Tindell School before it was called Inskip, and at the then-new Lincoln Park.

Then she went to work at the country school on Washington Pike that was called Camp Grove. She taught there for most of her 30s. It became the focus of her life.

Not right away, though. She retired from teaching at 38 to get married—not an unusual plan, then or now—to a veterinarian named Walter Morris. She and Dr. Morris moved to Somerville, a small town near Memphis, and lived there for several years around 1910. By some reports, she caused a stir there, and led an effort to build a library.

They returned to Knoxville, though, and she jumped back into education as a volunteer, a president of Camp Grove's PTA.

In 1918, the governor appointed Belle Morris to fill a vacancy in the Knoxville Board of Education. Women were not even legally allowed to vote in Tennessee when she became the second woman ever to take a seat on that influential body, a position she held for most of the rest of her life. After her appointment, she was elected to the position in 1923. Belle Morris was likely the first woman many Knoxvillians ever voted for.

In those days when schools were racially segregated, she also got involved in organizing and promoting black schools, including a nursery school on Payne Avenue and the Austin High and Eastport schools. Dr. H.M. Green, a prominent black physician and sometime city councilman, would later call her "the most active white woman in the city on behalf of the colored race."

But Camp Grove School was her special interest. In 1915, she appealed to County Court, the old governing body—until the 1917 annexation, it was still outside of city limits—for a new 13-room building for Camp Grove School. She may have been surprised when the completed school was renamed Belle Morris. She was, at the time, not yet 50.

She believed in the influence of beauty, and thought all schools should be places of conspicuous growth and bright color. She planted flower gardens at Austin High and Eastport, and at Camp Grove, made a personal no-interest loan to build a cottage for a gardener on the school grounds.

"Miss Belle," as the children knew her, later led an effort to expand the school itself, with a gymnasium and office. Belle Morris School was already one of the city's garden spots, but by its namesake's standards, it wasn't finished yet. In the early 1930s, she planted two elms at the school, 300 hyacinths, 200 tulips.

In May, 1932, Morris, who was 62 and apparently healthy—she'd been telling people how good she felt—spent a Thursday morning vigorously digging up irises in her own yard to replant them at her favorite school, around the front-lawn birdbath. She suddenly felt tired, and went inside to take a nap. Her husband, Walter, was unable to revive her.

It was a shock to the community, but the response of Belle Morris's principal, Martha Baker, was poetic. "Mrs. Morris has been the life of our school," she said. The morning after Belle Morris's death was the school's May Festival.

"This is not to be a play day, as we had planned," Principal Baker told her students. "This is a memorial service for our best friend and mother." Baker had the iris bulbs Belle Morris had dug up the day before. Students spent the morning planting them on the school grounds, as Morris herself had intended to. Then she had the elementary-school students, walk, in a children's parade still possible in those days before we bowed to the primacy of the automobile, to Miss Belle's home on Broadway. Even the children were sobbing.

Those children would in their late 80s now. Maybe some are still around to remember that day.

Corrected: Some states did permit women to vote in 1918, so the reference has been changed to read: "Women were not even legally allowed to vote in Tennessee ... "