The New Knoxvillians

A plea for pocket amnesty

Secret History

by Jack Neely

I don't know enough about economics to know whether the unprecedented immigration of Mexicans to the United States, legal and illegal, is good for the entire nation or not. If it turns out that there's clear proof that it's a grave problem for the U.S. economy, and the no-amnesty folks find a way to round up all undocumented immigrants and send them home, I hope they'll make an exception for those residing in one mid-sized city in the Southern Appalachians. The settlement of Mexican immigrants in Knoxville in the last 15 years has been one of the most positive cultural developments in my hometown in my lifetime.

Contrary to popular perception, Knoxville's never been a strictly homogeneous place. It certainly was not in its earliest days, when the frontier capital was populated by Americans from up and down the Eastern seaboard, and also newcomers from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Africaâ"and even some who had a right to complain that the white settlers, especially those who broke treaties with the Cherokee, were the illegal immigrants. One prominent citizen named Jorge Farragut spoke mainly Spanish.  

Since the 1960s, UT has kept us supplied with enough short-term immigrants from China, India, and some Arabic nations to keep a couple of ethnic markets open, and to keep public transit in business. Over the years I've gotten to know resident immigrants from Russia, Japan, India, Germany, Spain, Colombia, Italy, Ghana, France, Sweden, South Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Ireland, Turkey, Canada, Greece, Vietnam, and several from the British Isles.

But not until lately did immigrants from any specific culture come in numbers that can support a choice of grocery stores, specialty bakers or butchers, a radio station, musical events, and numerous ethnic restaurants. There may be a dozen good Mexican-run, Spanish-speaking taquerias in Knoxville today. Some of the freshest and most surprising food I've enjoyed lately has been in these simple diners where I have to point out my choices to the non-English-speaking waitress. To a gringo who'll never afford a trip to Cancun, each one is an affordable resort, an afternoon vacation.

I don't know how many of them are documented or undocumented, but thanks to them, Knoxvillians have more choices than we used to. If my federal government were to sweep in and send them all away, I would miss them badly.

It's been a very long time since Knoxville had a significant immigrant population, one big enough to throw a party. Too long, if you ask me.

Swiss, Germans, and Irish arrived beginning in the 1840s, some by train, some by riverboat, some by horse-drawn wagons, and changed the city, almost entirely for the better. Each of them kept their cultures, and even languages, for a generation or two; each of them threw big parties, at least annually, and sometimes invited the rest of us. After a while, most of them stopped: the St. Patrick's Day dances, the Swiss agape feasts, the German Turn Verein picnics. The Greeks began arriving around 1900, and by the '30s were having their own festivals, which continue to this day.

Many immigrants didn't acculturate immediately. Lots of Swiss, Germans, and Italians who came to Knoxville as adults never learned to speak English well, and the fact that there were French and German-language churches in Knoxville made it easier for them. For the most part, Knoxville didn't have a problem with that.

These immigrants, who came here legally, mostly with less trouble than the undocumented immigrants who live here today, became civic leaders. Many of them brought new ideas that might not have evolved here naturally. Gustav Knabe founded our first orchestra group. He was known as the Father of Music in East Tennessee, but he had an accent; he spent his first 30 years in Leipzig. The Knaffl brothers, among the first professional photographers in Knoxville, were from Austria.

Several were elected to public office: survey a list of city aldermen from Knoxville's fastest-growing, most dynamic years and you'll see names like Frederick Esperandieu, linguist and winemaker from Switzerland; Ignaz Fanz, sausage maker from Steinbach, Germany; Frederick Hockenjos, cigar maker from Baden-Baden. In America only seven years before he was elected to Knoxville City Council, Hockenjos was one of the most popular aldermen in Knoxville history, considered untouchable in his ward before his sudden death in a train wreck. Then there's Alex Biagiotti, who was elected Knoxville alderman in 1876, barely a decade after he immigrated from Lucca, Italy. To be elected to Knoxville City Council, you didn't need a green card or a visa. All you had to do to be a U.S. citizen was find some way to come over, and live here for five years.

You didn't need much scrutiny to be mayor, either. Peter Staub, who grew up in Vaud, Switzerland, speaking German, was Mayor of Knoxville in the 1870s. Peter Kern, founder of Kern's bread, and mayor of Knoxville in the 1890s, was from Heidelberg.

Some family surnames are so commonly recognized as â“old Knoxvilleâ” names now we don't even regard them as foreign, but there was a time when each of them was a family of immigrants who struggled with the English language. All these guys had accents. There was a time when we didn't fret about that.

I'm not saying they were better than Anglos, but they were motivated. As long as we had a large first-generation population of immigrants, there was always something fresh and interesting going on.

Most of them did come legallyâ"which, back then, meant that they came. Immigrating legally was pretty much the same as immigrating. Great-grandchildren of immigrants may be proud to distinguish themselves with the assumption that their own ancestors came over legally; but for a time, there was hardly any such thing as illegal immigration here. If there had been barriers to the Swiss, Germans, Irish, and Greeks, are we quite certain they wouldn't have found a way?

If immigration had been tighter, would the persecuted Swiss, the revolution-weary Germans, the starving Irish, the war-torn Greeks, have been content to put law before family, and stay put?

The United States began cracking down on immigration in 1921. In the wake of the first Red Scare and the Anarchist hysteria, perhaps it was seen as a necessary step at the time. Immigration was further bureaucratized later in the century. When immigrants stopped arriving in large numbers, it's hard not to notice, Knoxville languished in some ways.

I sometimes listen to the Spanish-language radio station. I like the music, and can pick out only a few words in the DJs' announcements. I can't help but notice that they say one particular wordâ" Knoxville! â"with an exclamation point we can only wish we heard from natives.


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