secret_history (2006-48)

Journalism in Tennessee

Observations on Black Friday, Confederate Heritage, and the Times Literary Supplement

by Jack Neely

We always work the Friday after Thanksgiving, consequently, I’ve made kind of a study of the subject.

In the suburbs, it’s called Black Friday. All stores are open, some earlier than usual. Some stay open later.

Downtown, for most of my long acquaintance with it, was just the opposite. Just three or four years ago, there was less retail activity on Black Friday downtown than there was on any Joe Friday. There was less retail activity, in part, because most places weren’t open.

Considering the volume of business going on elsewhere, on allegedly the top retail day of the year, it was a paradox.

It was also a frustration. The day after Thanksgiving is a day when friends and family are in town and, the bird put away, free to roam around and see the sights. Knoxville may be more thoroughly scrutinized that day than any other day of the year. Every year, you see families downtown with maps, trying locked doors.

Sometimes when I’ve coaxed one or two former Knoxvillian friends or family members downtown on that Friday, downtown would be an exhibit of the subtle variations in “Closed” signs. I would introduce them to my favorite bums.

It was always like one of those maddening Twilight Zone episodes. “There were people here just last Friday. No, I’m serious.”

The following Monday, retailers always had a heartwarming story about why they weren’t open: family they got to visit, slopes they got to ski, TV they got to watch. I could only feel sorry for the overworked suburban retailers who didn’t get to share their joy.

Things are different now. Friday afternoon was the opening of the skating rink on Market Square, and lots of people were out. All the stores on the Square appeared to be open and busy, and most of the restaurants.

I walked more broadly around downtown. The Mast General Store, a big place, looked as busy as any store in the mall. The brewpub looked busier than usual. There was a crowd at WDVX.

However, the vigor dissipates on other blocks. Some blocks were entirely locked down. Of the four convenience stores I know of downtown, the places I go for aspirin or a cheap Coke or a pack of chewing gum, not a single one was open. Most of the half-dozen quick cafes or coffee shops downtown were closed, too, which surprised some folks.

Hundreds and hundreds of people were shopping for Christmas gifts, some very extravagant ones, artwork and jewelry and furniture. I bet there are a few of them who would have appreciated the opportunity to buy some Benedryl or a roll of film or a comb or a quick cup of coffee in a quiet place.

Me, I was looking for some cheap glue to fix my cheap tennis shoes, which had become unhinged. Friday, I was out of luck.

It’s livelier this year, though. Now if I could just get my relatives to believe I’m not bluffing this time.

I never know what to say to people who are disappointed to learn they’re not Confederates.

Sometimes they’re men nearly old enough to have known Civil War veterans, themselves. But they do some genealogical research to get into some Confederates’ descendents’ organization, and find out they’re really Yankees.

I’m not sure why folks get so dismayed at the discovery that their people weren’t on the losing side of a war, representing a cause that was, at best, morally complicated. The bold Southern Unionists of the Civil War era might be perplexed to discover how many latter-day Confederate sympathizers they begat.

Sometimes it worked the other way. Researching the last issue’s Thanksgiving piece, I ran across a bit in the old Knoxville Whig from November, 1863, edited by Parson William Brownlow, the city’s most prominent Unionist. His typically inimitable diatribe was against Jacob Austin Sperry, the militant secessionist and final editor of the pro-Rebel Knoxville Register .

As Brownlow’s paper had it, “The man in whose name this acknowledged lying and disreputable sheet is edited and published, J.A. Sperry, is a low-down, ill-bred, lying, debauched, drunken scoundrel, alone worthy of the company of the VILLAINS and COWARDS who write the dirty, slanderous editorials for his paper….

“He has been flogged in the Ten-Pin Alley for violating the courtesies of a low-down gambling saloon! He has been taken off the curbstones of the street, after midnight, in a beastly state of intoxication…. And although he has a wife and children, I am able to prove that he has been driven, more recently, out of a neighboring lot, from the embraces of a filthy Negro wench!”

I can’t supply more details about those allegations. But the Register closed down forever that fall, under Burnside’s federal occupation. Sperry fled to still-Confederate Atlanta. Brownlow claimed East Tennessee was so Unionist the Sperrys would never be safe here.

So they left. Two of those allegedly neglected children, William and Thomas Sperry, spent most of their adult lives up north. William lived in Michigan for a time. Thomas married a New York woman. Both settled in New Jersey.

By the turn of the century, the Sperrys would be best known as founders of Sperry and Hutchinson, known for decades as the S&H Green Stamp Co., Inc. These sons of one of Knoxville’s fiercest wartime Confederates would be more prominent in Cranford, NJ, where William Sperry founded the Cranford Trust Co., and where there have been parks and buildings named for the Sperrys.

Genealogists would agree that their Confederate heritage was undeniable. But I don’t doubt that they were on occasion mistaken for Yankees.

A few months ago we remarked that a Knoxvillian showed up on the cover of the London Times Literary Supplement . Two, in fact, but they weren’t even writers. They were the Everly Brothers in a portrait that appears to have been taken about the time they left for Nashville. The brothers, who were as popular in Britain as they were in the states, were referenced in a featured poem by Paul Muldoon.

As a friend noted, it wasn’t the last prominent reference to Knoxville in the TLS this year; in August, a long essay in the journal was titled “Knoxville, campsites, and cruise holidays.”

The essay by Toronto author and scholar Stephen Henighan is about Knoxville-born writer James Agee, still internationally sexy half a century after his death. Henighan’s piece references several of Agee’s works—but the headline refers to UT professor Paul Ashdown’s collection, James Agee: Selected Journalism . It was published by UT Press in 1985, and is, fortunately in light of this prominent international recognition, still available. It’s still a surprising read, even after 20 years, even if you’ve read it a couple of times before.

Henighan concludes, “There can be few more honourable literary oblivions than that of James Agee.”