Renée S. Gordon
“There is no color line at the cross.”
–Reverend Paul Turner
Tennessee’s state flag consists of a central blue circle with three white stars on a crimson field representing the three Grand Divisions that make up the state. Entering Tennessee from the east you encounter the Unaka Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains are a subset, at an elevation of 6,000-ft. You move westward into the Cumberland Plateau and the Highland Rim and Central Basin in the middle of the state and end up 200-ft. above sea level in the relatively flat western Gulf Coastal Plains. From the time of the earliest settlers in the territory these topographical differences have been determining factors in the growth, history, culture, economy and political stance of the people.
Not only is each of the state’s divisions very distinctive but also visitors will find that each city is singular and the sites and attractions are unique. Tennessee has developed a series of tours that emphasize sites according to traveler’s interests. This route commences in East Tennessee in the Knoxville area, includes African American heritage sites, Civil War battlefields and scenic trails and culminates on the “Sunny Side Trail” in historic Johnson City. www.tntrailsandbyways.com
I promised you singular and I think the honor of having the most unique Visitor Center in the Country belongs to Knoxville. Located inside a 100-year old building in the heart of the city, not only does it provide information, maps and guides, it also has an outstanding gift shop, a café and the daily Blue Plate Special. The gift shop features TN made products that make great collectibles and souvenirs and the Parlor Café serves meals created from local products.
WDVX Studio is housed inside the Visitor Center and it broadcasts a one-hour program from the studio at noon daily. The free “Blue Plate Special” showcases music groups from throughout the country. Both guests and residents bring or purchase lunch and enjoy the concert. www.knoxville.org/vc
The Frank McClung Museum is located on the campus of Tennessee State University. Founded in 1961, the museum’s holdings consist of a number of collections including Egyptian and Roman artifacts and Tennessee archeology. Of particular note is a gallery on the lower level, “The Battle of Fort Sanders: November 29, 1863,” that recounts the story of the historic Knoxville Civil War conflict. Many of the artifacts are extremely rare including a letter written requesting a pardon after the war and a cane belonging to Lincoln. Visitors can request a screening of Stephen Dean’s award-winning documentary “Its Memory Alone Remains.”
For the past 35-years the Beck Cultural Exchange Center has been collecting, archiving and presenting the African American experience in Knoxville and East Tennessee. James, a principal and Tennessee’s first postal clerk and Ethel, an activist and entrepreneur, Beck were the founders and namesakes. James died in 1969 followed by Ethel in 1970. She left $20,000 to the black community to use for an important civic purpose. After taking a survey it was agreed that they should purchase a home in which to preserve the history.
The Beck Center is undergoing renovations but visitors can view the current exhibit “Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King” and access the archives. The center has a wonderful collection of African American dolls as well as the largest collection of the Delaney Brothers’ artworks. Gallery highlights include original photographs of M.L.K. and memorabilia donated by the family of Judge Dr. William Henry Hastie, the US first black federal judge. The Village Market Gift Shop is filled with wonderful gifts and resources and is well worth a visit. www.beckcenter.net
Haley Heritage Square honors the author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” with the largest statue of an African American in the country. Tina Allen’s 13-ft., 4200-lb. bronze sculpture was installed in 1998. Haley is seated, book in hand, posed as if he has just paused for a moment to contemplate the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains directly in front of him.
In 1982 Alex Haley purchased a 157-acre Clinton, Tennessee farm that would be his home until his death in 1992. In 1996 the farm, which consisted of a lodge, log cabin, old farmhouse, barn, pond, bridge and four guesthouses, was sold to the Children’s Defense Fund for use as a retreat and training facility. Regular tours are not scheduled but a series of public programs provide access to the farm. Tours include the 1830 Haley home and two stunning architectural masterpieces by Maya Lin, the Langston Hughes Library and the Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel.
The non-circulating Langston Hughes Library was completed in 1999 based on a design by Lin. An 1880s cantilevered barn on the grounds was disassembled, the library was constructed and the barn reassembled around it, retaining its historic appearance. The library houses 5,000 volumes and the Maya Angelou/ John Hope Franklin Reading Room.
After Sept. 11, Lin created the Interfaith Chapel. It was designed to resemble a cypress-sided and evoke a feeling of movement. The Haley Farm is the only location in the country with two structures designed by Maya Lin. www.childrensdefense.org
Before the integration of Central High School in Little Rock there was the desegregation of Clinton High School in Tennessee. This lesser-known chapter of Civil Rights history is the focal point of Green McAdoo Cultural Center. The museum is located inside the former 1935 Green McAdoo School. The school, originally the Clinton Colored School, was renamed in 1947 in memory of Green L. McAdoo a former Buffalo Soldier and community leader.
On August 27, 1956 the Clinton 12 became the first African American students to desegregate a southern state supported high school. William Duffy’s life-sized bronze sculpture of the groundbreaking event graces the lawn in front of the McAdoo. The center opened on the 50th anniversary, August 26, 2006, and the sculpture was dedicated on May 17, 2007.
Admission is free and the tour begins with a five minute film shown in a 1950s classroom, on Jim Crow Era education and the litigation that led to desegregation, narrated by schoolteacher Theresa Blair. At the end of the film the sashes open to reveal the museum’s main gallery.
Clinton, Tennessee was a small town and initially the students encountered no problems. Two outsiders, Frederick Kasper and Asa Carter came to town, from New Jersey and Alabama, and went door-to-door inciting the people. The first showcases relate the story of their arrival and the types of literature disseminated by segregationists. The city had only six policemen and on September 2, 1956 the governor called in 635 members of the National Guard to ensure the student’s safety.
The National Guard protected the students in school and citizens, both black and white, walked them to and from school. On December 3rd three white men accompanied them to school and afterwards one of them, Reverend Paul Turner, was severely beaten. A showcase contains correspondence both in support of and against his actions. Interestingly the hate mail is generally unsigned.
On May 17, 1957 Bobby Cain became the first black male to graduate from a public southern high school. On October 5, 1958 Clinton High School was leveled by three successive bomb blasts at 4 A.M. On October 9th the integrated student body moved to a refurbished elementary school given to them in Oak Ridge, TN. The Oak Ridge school band waited one-hour, in a light rain, to welcome them. The tour ends in the Epilogue Room with a photographic display and two television broadcasts. www.greenmcadoo.org
On August 2, 1939 Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt alerting him to the fact that the Germans successfully split the atom in 1938, the creation of a nuclear bomb was possible within next three years and, should the US not be first with the technology, the ramifications for the rest of the world could prove disastrous. www.dannen.com/ae-fdr.html
As a result of the communication on October 11th Roosevelt set up the Advisory Committee on Uranium. Little was done until after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor and in October of the following year the government began acquiring 56,000-acres in Tennessee for the establishment of a “Secret City” where research could be done on the Manhattan Project. Many residents were forced to relocate and given only from two to six weeks to do so. www.oakridgevisitor.com
Workers were sworn to secrecy and, amazingly, though the population swelled from 3,000 in 1942 to 75,000 in 1945, no one divulged information. The town was not on maps, was a no-fly zone, residents relinquished cameras and it was enclosed by a fence and seven guard stations. Each person knew only their own job and had no idea what the objective was. Only in 1945 when they read in the newspaper of the dropping of the bomb on Japan did their mission become clear.
Today you can tour Oak Ridge, 25-miles west of Knoxville, and learn firsthand the secrets of WWII. The American Museum of Science and Energy is an interactive museum that explores all aspects of the Manhattan Project and its aftermath and an area is devoted to the story of African American Oak Ridge residents. African American workers and their families lived in one-room segregated housing in an area known as Gamble Valley. They were not paid on the same scale as other workers and were not eligible for certain jobs.
An outdoor display features a tourable original 2-bedroom flat top home. Other significant sites are the Oak Ridge National Graphite Reactor, Y12 Security Complex, Children’s Museum and the Super Computer, one of the three fastest computers in existence.
Visits must be scheduled in advance for security reasons. Check the website for the most current information. This is definitely one of the best tours in the country. www.amse.org
The 652-mile Tennessee River flows both north and south and a great way to end this leg of our trip and obtain an overview of the region is aboard a sternwheeler on the river. Narrated cruises are regularly scheduled. www.volunteerprincess.com
All necessary travel tools are available online. www.tnvacation.com
I wish you smooth and surprising travels!