secret_history (2006-17)

The Wandering Plaque

After over 30 years, a dedicatory stone finds a roundabout way home

by Jack Neely

The Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center in Grainger County is a sort of laboratory for new energy-conservation technologies. It’s located in a hollow with the earthy name of Hogskin Valley, maybe 35 miles northeast of Knoxville.

The center got its start back in the 1970s through the efforts of an environmentally minded Methodist minister named Bill Nickle. The founder himself has come and gone from the place over the years, working and living in different parts of the region, but through all his comings and goings, one slab of rock he brought with him has stayed in place. This month, he found reason to move it.

Nickle moved to Knoxville in the early ’70s and lived at 1530 Highland Avenue, James Agee’s old block, next door to the old church then known as the Jubilee Center. In the weed bushes along the back alley behind his house he found a broad, flat, square tablet of handsome pink marble.

The words engraved on the front didn’t mean much to him: ETHEL BECK HOME, followed by the phrase, REBUILT 1939. The stone offered no clues about what, or where, the Ethel Beck Home was, but there were some unfamiliar names, of officers and trustees below. The first is that of “Mrs. James G. Beck, President.”

The name didn’t ring any bells. But it was a nice piece of stone. “I thought I could use it for a tabletop, on the backside,” Nickle said.

When he moved to Hogskin Valley, Nickle carried the stone with him and put it in his barn up there. There it stayed for over 30 years, as his own career took him away, and brought him back again, and as the old barn deteriorated.

As he was starting to realize the old barn might be done for, and he might have to clear everything out of it, Nickle read somewhere that the African-American organization known as the Beck Cultural Exchange Center back in Knoxville was calling for relevant historical artifacts. He remembered the name in big letters on the inscription on the stone he’d found when he was a young man in Fort Sanders.

He called Avon Rollins, director of the Beck Center—which didn’t exist when he originally found the Beck Home stone. Rollins recognized the inscription right away. “It was an orphanage for African-American youngsters,” he says. “The ‘Colored Orphanage,’ they called them back then.”

The Beck Center and the old Beck Home were both named for an unusual couple. James Beck, one-time principal of Lonsdale School, later headed the English department at Austin High. He became the Knoxville Post Office’s first black clerk in 1913. But it was through real estate that he made a modest fortune.

His younger wife, Ethel Beck, originally from Morristown, was a slender beauty, and a fine tennis player. They made an unlikely pair as black social reformers, an affluent, elegant black couple in segregated Knoxville: she a sometime tennis champ, he a Republican politician. Long after most blacks had forsaken the party of Lincoln, James Garfield Beck remained as Republican as his namesake. He served as sergeant-at-arms in the 1940 Republican National Convention and later ran, unsuccessfully, for Knoxville City Council. Both the Becks were friends of firebrand reformer and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. They eventually lived in the stylish, tree-shaded home on Dandridge Avenue that later became the center named for them.

For much of their marriage, James Beck was the famous one, but in 1919, when Ethel Beck was only 25, she helped found the Knoxville Colored Orphanage. Through her effective leadership of a later fundraising drive, they planned a fine new building, hiring to design it a respected architectural firm, R.F. Graf & Sons, whose name is among those listed on the tablet. The impressive new orphanage went up on Brandau Street, near Knoxville College, a hilltop with one of the best views in town. For a couple of decades the two-story brick, school-like building was home to more than a dozen black children.

The Knoxville Colored Orphanage was renamed in Ethel Beck’s honor in 1941, perhaps the occasion that prompted the engraving of this marble.

Times and social programs changed, and sometimes people outlive their memorials. When the Ethel Beck Home closed around 1965, Ethel Beck was still around to take over the property. Though farm animals were generally forbidden in the city, she somehow rated unusual permission to raise a few cattle and chickens at the old orphanage, and kept it up after her husband’s death in 1969. She was on the way home from feeding them the day in the summer of 1970 when she had a car wreck down the hill on Western. Because the policeman on the scene thought the 74-year-old widow’s behavior was strange, he arrested her for drunk driving, but jailers soon sent her to the hospital, where it was determined she’d suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She died a couple of days later.

The Ethel Beck Home was torn down long ago; its view of the city and the mountains now belongs to the College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church. The sale of the Beck Home property helped enable the opening of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center in 1975.

How the dedicatory marble materialized in a Fort Sanders alley around 1972 is a minor mystery. It wasn’t very far from the old Beck Home site, less than a mile, but it would have taken some deliberate effort. It could have been a fraternity prank, as some have suggested, though the punchline seems obscure. It may also have been an abortive but well-meant effort, perhaps on the part of someone associated with the Jubilee Center, to save some part of the old orphanage.

Regardless, Rollins is happy to get it back. It’s resting behind the Beck Center’s recently renovated home on Dandridge, where the center has a little garden of architectural artifacts of long-gone buildings associated with Knoxville’s African-American history.

Avon Rollins finds it interesting that though the home went by the name of Ethel Beck, the same woman is listed as “Mrs. James G. Beck” on the same stone, as president.

“All the other women on the board go by their husband’s name, too.” Rollins brought up the matter with his own wife. “That doesn’t go over too good these days,” he says.