Julia Tucker's Life of Activism

For more than 30 years, the eccentric activist Julia Tucker has been in the crosshairs of Knoxville history

June 27, 1993, Knoxville Gay Pride March and Rally: Keynote speaker Julia Tucker quieted the large, boisterous crowd gathered on the City County Building lawn by asking them to "keep a space" for the people who had rejected them.

"We know how large our hearts are, so open them up and hold a space. Hold aside the righteous indignation and the judgment toward them for not being as we want them to be. Send them a bridge. Send them the love that will get them here to you."

This was two years after her son, Bill, had died of AIDS at the age of 30. Julia Tucker, with her unrelenting demands that attention must be paid to this epidemic, had become an icon in Knoxville's gay community and a thorn in the flesh to local government. It had been a long, difficult journey since she had responded to her 16-year-old son Bill Powell's informing her that he was gay by sending him to see a psychiatrist—who gave him a clean bill of mental health and suggested that Tucker come see him, too. She did, and was able to get past the mommy-blaming of that era and see her son as that the same funny, charismatic, smart young man who loved old buildings and all kinds of people.

When news of a gay plague hit a few years later, Tucker was terrified. When Bill summoned her home from Atlanta to tell her he was HIV-positive, she went to war, first against his disease, and, after he was gone, against a society that shunned people with AIDS.

She became a tireless advocate, a fund-raiser, a lobbyist, and a hands-on caregiver who cared for the sick and eased the fears of the dying. Always an animal lover, she adopted their dogs when they could no longer care for them, and at one point had five canine AIDS orphans in her house. (Her friend Lynn Ellis took the cats.) When she saw people with AIDS facing homelessness, she bought the Graham, a two-story, eight-apartment brick building on Magnolia Avenue that became Knoxville's first residence for people with AIDS.

Over three decades, Julia Tucker has contributed and raised countless dollars for charity, served on scores of boards, and became the city's most influential AIDS advocate. She is a historic preservationist and a political activist who has never been far from the crossroads—if not the crosshairs—of Knoxville history.

Today, ensconced in her very own castle in South Knoxville, Tucker says she can scarcely believe that she'll be 81 her next birthday. She says she's happy to reminisce, but would rather focus on the future.

"Everything I did was not accepted by everybody, and not everybody loves me. I did push the norm—I had three husbands, and way back then that was a terrible thing. I had enemies nipping at my heels, and I either had to placate them or say, ‘I don't care. This is who I am.' A lot of things have happened in my life, but there ought to be time for more to happen," Tucker says. "I'm not through yet. The best part of life is if you've got a project and you're building something. The doing is always better than the having."

The Early Years

"I was not an easy child. I suffered from depression that manifested itself by making me a fighter. I would take the opposite side of any issue and fight for the underdog on the playground. If I hadn't have been such a fighter, I would not have survived. I came out as a belligerent, antisocial activist."

—Julia Tucker

Julia Elliott McCurry was born on May 22, 1932, in the back bedroom of her grandmother's house in Dover, Tenn., near Clarksville. Her father, Robert McCurry, died when Julia was 5 years old. One of her earliest memories is the acrid smell of chrysanthemums when somebody pulled a stool up to his casket and made her kiss his dead cheek. Her mother, Robbie Riggins, was a schoolteacher who had to leave town to look for work, leaving Julia in the care of her grandmother, Ada Riggins, who taught the preschooler to read from the two books at hand—a dictionary and a Bible.

"She died when I was 6 or 7, and she was 60. My mother died when she was 60, so I naturally assumed that I was going to die when I was 60, and I planned my life accordingly," Tucker says. "I'm spending what I thought I was going to leave to my children. I've outlived myself by 20 years. I guess it's kind of a game with Judy"—her daughter, chiropractic doctor Judy Powell Roy, whom Tucker says got "all of my good qualities and none of my bad ones"—"and me to see how long we can trick the devil."

Robbie Riggins McCurry married Hubert Wright in Gallatin, Tenn., where she had found a job working for the state. The schools were so progressive there that Julia was able to skip two grades when the family moved to Knoxville. Her stepfather opened Hubert Wright Hardware on North Central Street, and she discovered a safe, self-contained world in Happy Holler. The family lived on Oklahoma Avenue and Julia attended Mynders Elementary School, at Baxter Avenue and Central, on the site of what became a Sears building (itself later converted into a Knox County government building).

The smell of fresh-baked bread wafted down the hill from the Merita Bakery. There were two grocery stores, two drug stores, a dry goods store, a Kay's Ice Cream store, and the Joy Theater, where she could see an all-day movie for 7 cents and get a bucket of popcorn for another nickel. One of the grocery stores was an all-night Cas Walker's, next door to Wright's Hardware. It had no front door—just a curtain of black rubber strips under a sign that said "Open 25 hours a day. We doze but never close." Hubert Wright and Walker did some business together, and Walker called Julia "Little Julie Wright."

"Everything you could want was in Happy Holler," Tucker says. "But there were things I just didn't know about as a child. For example, you didn't see a black person there, ever. If you were black, I was told later on by a black friend, you just didn't go there. And never at night."

The Rev. Ramsey Pollard's Broadway Baptist Church was the family's spiritual center, social outlet, and country club. Pollard would later become president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"It was that ‘You're going to hell' kind of preaching, but the early friends I had were at Broadway Baptist, and I still know all the words to ‘Just As I Am.' That church imprinted my life so much that soon as I could, I got away," Tucker says.

The Wrights moved to North Hills and adopted a baby boy named Tommy. Julia was 13, and loved him on sight. Later, she says they would terrify her by threatening to take him away if she misbehaved. In 1944, she entered Knoxville High School, which was populated by some of the city's wealthiest kids, and some of the poorest. Julia worked in the hardware store throughout high school

"The student body was a conglomeration of all kinds of kids—the crème of Knoxville and the dregs of Knoxville. There were some of the richest kids you can imagine there. I certainly was not part of that. That's where I met Cas' daughter Wilma June, who was more out of her element than I was. That was back when nobody had cars, but he bought her the biggest, blackest convertible he could find, and she used to park it right at the bottom of the steps where everybody would see it. It became an object of derision and was no help to her at all. Even at that time Cas was such a controversial person. He was making a name for himself in so many different ways."

Meanwhile, the war was never far from the thoughts of the students at KHS.

"People were gathering iron and steel," Tucker remembers. "Ornamental fences pretty much disappeared in Knoxville. There was not a loose nail that people didn't pick up to have it smeltered down to go in the airplanes. We bought stamps and war bonds. We had rationing books and very little meat. Gas was rationed and so were tires."

When she graduated, she wanted to get away from home, so her parents sent her off to Blue Mountain College, a Baptist girl's school near Tupelo, Miss. It was very strict—no dating, dancing, or card playing—and most of the students aspired to become missionaries.

"I remember this missionary from China coming through, and when the call went out, everybody else stood up," Tucker says. "I didn't. If I'd followed that call, I would have died in China with William Wallace, probably."

(Knoxville native Bill Wallace was a Southern Baptist medical missionary to China who was imprisoned and killed by the Communist regime in 1951 and is considered a martyr by his church.)

After a year at Blue Mountain, her parents decided to save some money by sending her to the University of Tennessee, where she joined the debate team and immediately thrived. But at the end of spring quarter, they told her they couldn't afford to keep paying $50 per quarter in tuition, and 50 years later, she still hasn't shaken the memory of her parents buying a $1,200 blue damask couch (now red velvet and sitting in her living room) that cost more than two years' worth of UT tuition at the time. She was forced to drop out and take a series of menial jobs and ended up a secretary to the assistant treasurer at TVA, despite the fact that she couldn't type or take shorthand. This turned out to be no problem—TVA sent her to Cooper's Business College.

By then she was 19, and married to her high-school sweetheart, Ed Hoskins, who soon went off to the Marines. Her son Mac was born when she was 20, and the marriage ended shortly thereafter.

"We were very poor, and had no chance to succeed," she says. "Those were hard times."

Julia would marry and divorce three times, an unusual resume for a woman interested in running for office.

"That was a sin, back in those times," she says. "When I ran for school board, I said, ‘Look—this is the way it is.' It's still of great interest to some people. But I always married somebody I knew was a good person—a father figure, probably. I kept looking for my father, all these years."

Her second husband, Frank Powell, came to Knoxville to work as an athletic trainer for the UT football team. Their children Judy and Bill were born less than two years apart. When this marriage ended, Tucker went to night school and took correspondence courses to get a degree in education so she could go to work as a first-grade teacher at Lincoln Park Elementary School for $3,000 a year.

The following year, she married Dewey Tucker, 20 years her senior and president of Tucker Steel, which consisted of three steel companies that he later sold for a handsome profit to a national conglomerate.

"That was during the era of boats and planes," she says. "At one point the stock went so high he looked me in the eye and said, ‘We'll never be able to spend all this money.' That was another good man I was married to. He was supportive when I ran for school board, but he never really thought much of politics."

School Board Days

"For public figures, real courage is when you are willing to be controversial. Look at any progress that has ever been made, there is controversy. And generally, before the most significant progress ever gets made, it's because one person who has a thick enough hide to take on the good old boys steps up and blazes a trail. That's Julia."

—Randy Tyree, Knoxville mayor, 1976–1983

In the early '60s, Knoxville civic leaders started thinking about going out of the education business. They didn't get that done until 1988, but during the '70s, the school system was struggling with rising costs, complex and costly pension issues, and the aftermath of desegregation.

Tucker was elected in 1973, defeating incumbent Jack Cooper, who had been appointed to the board to serve out an unexpired term. She had known him for years through the Chilhowee Elementary School PTA, and says she was urged to run against him by school-board members and administrators, and that she had no personal beef with Cooper.

During her first term, she bonded with board colleagues like Charlie Burchett and NAACP president Sarah Moore Greene, as well as administrator Wanda Moody, who wielded serious clout through the Knoxville Education Association and whom Tucker still counts as a political mentor. Moody left the school system in 1981 when Gov. Lamar Alexander offered her a position in his administration. She says she left because she was worn down by endless battles.

"The city was in bad financial shape and the mayor knew that if the schools did merge, that would free up some city money that he could use for other projects," Moody says. "What happened was we had so darn many schools, but didn't have capital funds. The buildings had gone down and the city was operating so many old, outdated schools. But every time an attempt made to try to close one, there was a tremendous outcry from parents.

"Julia was a good school-board member, and a good chair. She ran a good show. Later on, she would become a pioneer in the movement to get any kind of services for people with HIV. Heritage and historic preservation were real passions of hers, too. She was ahead of her time."

Of course, Tucker also had a very direct way of dealing with problems. During her tenure as school board chair, she was also sneaking downtown in the middle of the night and messing with the letters on the sign at Temple Memorial Baptist Church. It stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, next to Old Gray Cemetery, where Volunteer Ministry Center is now. This particular "church" was pastored by Buddy Tucker, whose chief historical distinction was ordaining Byron De La Beckwith, the unconvicted assassin of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Beckwith would eventually go to prison for murder years later. Buddy Tucker's father was Julia Tucker's most recent ex-husband, which sort of made Buddy her stepson. The sign always bore some racist slogan—usually anti-Semitic, although he was an equal opportunity bigot and liked to mix it up occasionally. Many in the community were mortified, but nobody did anything about it but Julia Tucker, who scrambled those trashy messages into pure-tee gibberish.

Julia's Castle

"As everybody who has ever gotten tangled up with Julia, I didn't know what I was getting into. I was overwhelmed from the get-go—first with her generosity, then by that magic voodoo thing she's got going on. It's like thinking you're going to a pond to fish and finding yourself out on the wide ocean."

—Author/photographer Reed Massengill, a Knoxville native and 9/11 attack survivor who returned home from New York and bought Bill Powell's Mechanicsville home, Rosecross, from Julia. He originally met her when he was researching his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Portrait of a Racist, about Medgar Evers' killer Byron De La Beckwith, who was ordained a minister by Tucker's step-son, Buddy Tucker.

Bill Powell emerged as one of Knoxville's leading preservationists when he was 23-year-old UT student by taking the lead in an effort to save the Humes House, an old rectory built at 423 Cumberland Ave. around 1845. He took action after St. John's Episcopal Church announced plans to demolish it in 1983.

"It was the second- or third-oldest building left downtown and Bill just thought it needed to be saved," Tucker says. "He got permission to save it, but the church didn't give him much time, so he and some friends went to work with jackhammers and took out the windows and doors and architectural features. Each piece was numbered with a corresponding floor plan. They couldn't save the bricks, but they loaded everything else into pickup trucks and took it to an empty building on the World's Fair site. Bill intended to rebuild it somewhere, not just to salvage the pieces, but he got sick and couldn't complete that project. I tried, and I always felt bad that I couldn't do it for him, but it just couldn't happen."

Some of the component pieces of Humes House resurfaced nearly 20 years after Bill Powell's death.

What Tucker could make happen was Williamswood, a whimsical, one-of-a-kind house on the banks of the Tennessee River tributary next to Ijams Nature Center. More commonly known as Julia's Castle, it started life as a Girl Scout lodge on property that Bill had urged her to buy. Now it's a magical mash-up of history and dreams, inside jokes and architectural artifacts that mother and son collected over the years. There are gargoyles and knights in armor and a swinging bridge on the back deck; a hidden staircase to a secret room she built for her granddaughter, Katie, and a trapdoor and secret tunnel that she built for her grandson, Tyler. There are 44 leaded- and/or stained-glass windows, marble floors salvaged from Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, and beams from East Tennessee Packing Company. There's an arched door from old South High School and a front door from a demolished Magnolia Avenue apartment house called the Sara Mae. Artist Ian Rush painted the high ceiling in Tucker's bedroom, Sistine Chapel-style, with scenes from her life and imagination. It took more than 18 months to complete.

"My stock answer for why I did this is this: After Bill died, I could either take the money I had and gone to Peninsula Hospital, or I could take on a project. So that's what I did," Tucker says.

The day before the builder was supposed to get started, Tucker and Michael Tomlinson, a multimedia artist and close friend of Bill, were standing at the bottom of the hill trying to figure out what they wanted to build. They decided on a Scottish hunting lodge. (Bill had played bagpipes and lived in Scotland.) Tomlinson got out a yellow pad and started sketching. They walked up the hill and started drawing in the dirt with a stick to show where the footings would go.

"People tell me, ‘Too bad Bill never saw that,'" Tucker says. "But what they don't know is he has. We mixed some of his ashes with some of the concrete. He's seen it all."

The Future

First-year law student Tyler Roy grabbed a seat on the first row when former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales came to speak at UT a few weeks ago. Afterward, he approached Gonzales with a question:

"What do you think of the Patriot Act being used primarily for drug convictions rather than terrorism?"

Somewhat taken aback, Gonzales replied that the Patriot Act had been very effective in stopping terrorist attacks. Tyler replied that from 2006-2009, more than 1,600 "delayed warrants" were granted under the Patriot Act for drug-related offenses. Only 15 were granted for terrorism. Gonzales disputed his numbers. Reporters watched the exchange.

Tyler thanked Gonzales and tried to leave, but the press corps followed him outside. He was quoted the following day in the News Sentinel. He and the former attorney general exchanged correspondence afterward. His grandmother is pretty proud.

Katie "Julia" Roy was 3 years old when her Uncle Bill died, and decided that he had turned into a butterfly. On the occasion of her grandmother's 75th birthday, Katie made a list of 75 reasons why she was glad Julia Tucker in her life. They included:

You love me.

You are kind.

You always have the solution.

You give great advice.

You do not care what others think about you.

Other reasons included Julia letting Katie wipe her nose on her sleeve when she was little and teaching her to believe in angels. She also mentioned that her grandmother is opinionated, eccentric, creative, generous, reliable, young at heart, and a fighter. Reason Number 74 said "You are the reason that either Tyler, or me, or your great-grandchildren, will do something amazing to change the world—maybe even cure AIDS."

Tucker has saved the card.

"I think I want that for my obituary," she says.