On the Map: Did Knoxville Have a “Slave Cemetery,” or is it a Mislabeled Google Map?

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Dear Doc:

Today, while exploring the area via Google Earth, I came across a spot on marked “Slave Cemetery.” It was at the end of a dead-end road called Ventis Lane in the Heiskell/Powell area. The reason I found it odd is because I didn’t think this was ever a particularly wealthy enough area to have slave owners. I didn’t know if there was more you could tell us about this or not.

Thanks,

Eric Savage

My Dear Mr. Savage:

If by this area you mean Knox County, you may have been victim of an oversimplification. The Knoxville area, and East Tennessee in general, had fewer slaves per capita than many—perhaps most—parts of the South did. There are several reasons for this fact, a large one being that the topography does not lend itself to large plantations of the sort that employed hundreds of slaves at once, as did some parts of the broad and flatter Deep South.

That said, there are two facts that are contrary to assumptions we often hear.

1. Knox County, 150-200 years ago, was home to dozens of people who would be considered, by any Tennessee measure, wealthy. Many of the early landowners, including those in the Heiskell/Powell area, were large landowners and ran productive farms or plantations.

2. You didn’t have to be wealthy to own slaves. Slaves weren’t cheap, but, adjusted for inflation, probably less expensive than an automobile today. Thousands of Tennessee families owned just one or two.

So even if the Knoxville area’s slave ownership was small by South Carolina or Alabama standards, Knox County did have slaves, hundreds of them. It’s estimated that at the time of the Civil War, over 4,000 slaves lived in Knox County. Many of them worked on farms, but a large number of them were concentrated in the city, working as cooks, house servants, chauffeurs.

Google Maps is wonderful, but a quick caveat: What you find there is not always strictly true in our familiar world. For some months or years, that site indicated an “airport” at the corner of Church and State. We walked around the corner to check if anything about First Presbyterian’s old corner had changed since the last time we’d been by there.

Z. Heraclitus Knox

Dear Dr. Knox:

Along the sidewalk on Walnut between Vine and Cafego, there is a large slab of what appears to be marble. Right now it serves solely as the boundary of the Eagles Club parking lot. I suspect it was once a step to something much grander. Was it?

Sincerely,

Cary Wiedman

My Dear Cary:

We welcomed this opportunity to take a stroll on a blustery January afternoon. The block indicated is just across Walnut Street from the side of the 1880s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. On the north side of Summit Hill Drive, Walnut Street is very quiet. Cafego Street, surely named for 1930s Vol hero George “Bad News” Cafego—the popular player was also know as “the Hurryin’ Hungarian”—is the last of several names for that street extending a block or so west of Walnut.

What we saw were six marble or limestone plinths lining the sidewalk, end to end, that obviously predate the parking lot, in general and in specific. Big chunks of stone like this, not necessarily steps, were often used as dignified retaining walls around urban lawns, especially in the late 19th century. You see them in Fourth and Gill and Fort Sanders. It looks like this one may once have included an iron fence anchored into it. And it’s possible that they’ve been moved since their original placement.

The crest of what was long called Summit Hill, and before that Gallows Hill, was mostly residential. It wasn’t necessarily a wealthy neighborhood, but a comfortable one.

That block remained entirely residential until the 1920s, when the Indestructible Mosaic and Tile Works opened there. After several decades on the northern end of Walnut Street, that place, eventually known as the John Beretta Tile Co., moved to Sutherland Avenue.

Was it something much grander? We know for certain that anything is much grander than a surface parking lot. In this case, it may have been so grand it was arguably majestic, if we can assume there was any truth in advertising concerning the Majestic Flats, an apartment building near that site about 100 years ago.

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Z. Heraclitus Knox

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