Jack Neely Offers Series on Knoxville History at Church Street United Methodist Church

Nave, Church Street United Methodist Church, Knoxville, May 2016
Nave, Church Street United Methodist Church, Knoxville, May 2016

Many of us greatly enjoy the columns and various lectures and walking tours led by Jack Neely. Starting Sunday you’ll have a chance to hear him speak for an hour each week for four weeks. It’s a part of Church Street United Methodist’s celebration of 200 years as a congregation and it includes weekly tours of the nave which many feel may be the most beautiful church in Knoxville. Both the tours and the lectures are free and open to the public. The tours are offered from 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM with lectures following from 2:30 – 3:30 PM.

The church approached Jack about developing the lecture series as a part of his role as executive director of the 501 (c) (3), Knoxville History Project. I met with him to discuss the lectures and he quickly pointed out that while the East Tennessee History Center does a fine job and his organization is pleased to work with them, there has never been a historical organization devoted completely to the city of Knoxville. It’s another area where we’re playing catch-up with Chattanooga which has such an organization of their own.

He’s currently editing a new book on the history of the Old City and we fell into conversation about its history and buildings. We met at Boyd’s and he pointed out that in the later part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century most people on that block would have had accents not native to east Tennessee, including everything from Irish and German families to Lithuanian Jews. Manhattan’s was first owned by a Greek family and the block contained Knoxville’s first Kosher Deli.

Jack Neely Knoxville 1915 Walking Tour, East Tennessee History Fair, Knoxville, August 2015
Jack Neely Knoxville 1915 Walking Tour, East Tennessee History Fair, Knoxville, August 2015

We talked for nearly two hours with the conversation flowing easily from one part of downtown to another, speculating why Knoxville seems less diverse today than a century ago. Irish, Greek and Asian festivals are coming soon, with the annual Hola Festival following this fall. Some of the cultures which have contributed to Knoxville’s history continue to be celebrated while others have faded. No period since that era has produced the kind of ethnic influx which might significantly impact the makeup of Knoxville’s population.

We also talked about the upcoming East Tennessee History Fair as a part of which, Jack will offer what he’s calling an “urban hike.” It’s a lengthy walking tour (he encouraged bring a water bottle) which will trace the perimeters of what used to be “Irish Town” and “Cripple Creek,” on the north end of downtown. While he said there is little obvious architecture, there are still reminders of the sections of town.

Always interesting, the Church Street series offers a unique opportunity to explore one of downtown Knoxville’s architectural  highlights and to hear Knoxville’s most noted historian. The topics are listed below – and you’ll get to hear Jack talk about the series this Sunday at 10:00 AM on WUTK, 90.3’s Knoxcentric: Powered by Inside of Knoxville, when co-host Jennell (JJ) Pershing and I are joined by both Jack Neely and Scott Schimmel.

Jack Neely at the Final Metro Pulse Best of Knoxville Awards Party, Barley's, Knoxville, Spring 2014
Jack Neely at the Final Metro Pulse Best of Knoxville Awards Party, Barley’s, Knoxville, Spring 2014
  • August 7– Architecture
  • August 14-Literature
  • August 21– Immigration
  • August 28– Music

August 7– Architecture: If Knoxville has never been famous for its architecture, several architects of national stature have left notable work in Knoxville. Among them is John Russell Pope, designer of several monumental buildings in Washington, including the Jefferson Memorial, who at least consulted on the design of Church Street Methodist. In recent years, some Knoxville architects have drawn national attention, some of them, like George Barber, long after his death. The talk will discuss how more than two centuries of trends in American architecture are reflected in Knoxville.

August 14-Literature: There’s a general impression that Knoxville may have more well-known literature than most American cities its size. Literary pilgrims the world over come to Knoxville just to be in the place that inspired Knoxville writers, especially two very different ones named James Agee and Cormac McCarthy. Do they have anything else in common? And how about other authors, from the antebellum humorist George Washington Harris to the Black Power poet Nikki Giovanni? And what’s Knoxville’s connection to Tennessee Williams?

August 21-Immigration: We sometimes presume that when we talk about immigration in Knoxville, we’re talking about immigration in the 1700s, involving only people who already spoke English. There’s a great deal more to the story, though. Knoxville has seen waves of immigration involving hundreds at a time from Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, and Greece, Eastern Europe–and even a few Italians and Chinese. In fact we’ve elected city leaders, mayors even, who had to learn English as adults.

August 28-Music: Knoxville is known for music, but how the city came to be the Cradle of Country Music is a story that turns out to be a little more complicated and exotic than we might expect. And the city has played an interesting role in several other forms of music, too, including blues, jazz, gospel, folk, and classical. It’s the home of the South’s oldest symphony orchestra, and Church Street Methodist hosted its first-ever concert. A discussion will explore how Knoxville and Knoxvillians may have changed the sound of American popular music.