Revising Local History
Wheeler’s Knoxville, Tennessee brings the city up to date
by Jeanne McDonald
Cities, no matter how small, are built upon an architecture of discrete events-—some organic, some man-made. It is left to scholars and witnesses with historical memory to record and analyze events in a systematic order and piece together a whole from the parts.
Retiring University of Tennessee history professor W. Bruce Wheeler has accomplished this task admirably in his 2005 revision of an earlier book, Knoxville, Tennessee (University Press of Tennessee, 1983, with the late Michael J. McDonald). This time, however, Wheeler has changed the subtitle, “Continuity and Change in an Appalachian City,” to “A Mountain City in the New South.”
Is Knoxville, in fact, a “mountain” city or a city whose shape and future have been determined by the mountains that surround it? Wheeler explains it this way: “The mountains…were initially great barriers, preventing the region’s significant population growth in the antebellum years.” Moreover, he says, the climate and terrain made it “inhospitable” for the rise of large plantations and slavery. Thus economics, cultural characteristics and physical isolation led Knoxville into “different political paths” than those in other parts of
Growth and prosperity in Knoxville have, of course, burgeoned since the book’s first edition. When Rosa Parks’ recent death coincided with my reading of this book, I began to realize the enormous transformations I myself have seen in Knoxville in the last few decades.
My first day in town in 1963, I was shocked to see a “whites only” sign above a public water fountain and a similar notice over the door of the local Laundromat. My then-husband had been hired only weeks before the fall semester to replace a young UT assistant professor who had been removed from teaching for either hosting or attending a party where blacks were present—I forget which. Even though it was a quiet, private party, neighbors called police because of the color of some of the guests.
Back then there were no interstates, no malls, no fast-food franchises, no Wal-Marts, Home Depots or Lowe’s. Because the Cas Walker grocery store was within walking distance of our apartment, I shopped there once but never returned because, in order to pay with a personal check, I had to have my picture taken at the checkout counter, where I saw posted the photographs of poor souls whose checks had bounced. Worse, Walker is reputed to have chewed off part of a man’s ear for failing to pay his grocery bill.
But eventually signs at drinking fountains came down (thanks to civil rights champions like Bob Booker), corporate franchises moved in, and Knoxville finally stepped hesitantly into modern America.
Wheeler calls Knoxville more Appalachian than Southern. (Historian Richard Marius called it a “border town.”) There were no huge plantations run by wealthy families or great oaks dripping with Spanish moss. But Wheeler claims that, after the Civil War, the native components of Knoxville’s business elite would’ve never been able to push the city toward the New South movement without the influx of new men who showed up. Carpetbaggers? Maybe. But along with their money they brought new ideas and energy. Consequently, with combined antebellum, traditional and new population strains, city leaders “embraced economic expansion, unrestrained capitalism, and unfettered urban growth.”
But we weren’t there yet. Writer John Gunther, in his book Inside USA (1946) labeled Knoxville “the ugliest city I ever saw in America.” He continued, “A recent movie, Ziegfeld Follies of 1946, could only be shown in a cut version in Knoxville, because one sequence shows Lena Horne” (a black singer), and also noted that Knoxville “leads every other town in Tennessee in homicides, automobile thefts and larceny.”
It’s amazing that a single person could set a city back years, but Cas Walker, a city councilman from 1941 through 1972, did just that. “I played the poor boy,” he boasted, but he got rich and remained in office, partly by buying up poll-tax receipts from the disenfranchised and giving them back already-marked election ballots. Wheeler and McDonald portrayed Walker unfavorably in the first edition of Knoxville, Tennessee , and at an appearance to discuss the book at the East Tennessee Historical Society, Walker showed up to insist, “I didn’t do all those shady things you accuse me of in your book; I always had somebody else do them for me.”
In pristine prose, Wheeler compounds a colorful and definitive history from Knoxville’s rough beginnings to its recent promising reach toward the future. Yes, we need forward-thinking leaders, the author says, but the power to alter a city ultimately becomes a challenge to its people. “What lies behind us,” he quotes from Oliver Wendell Holmes, “and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”