Knoxville College: Endangered and Haunting

Knoxville College, 901 Knoxville College Drive, Knoxville, May 2017

I promised I would get back to Knoxville College. When I first set out to write about the Knox Heritage Fragile Fifteen, I intended to include Knoxville College with the others. I know I’ve photographed it before, but I couldn’t put my hands on the photographs, so I walked around campus to replace the old photographs with more intentional ones.

The campus is a spot likely not to have been visited by most people who live downtown. It’s across the interstate via Western. Most of us wind up filling up with gas at Western and Middlebrook or buying groceries at Food City at some point or another. While there, you are practically at the college, almost within a stone’s throw up the hill at 901 Knoxville College Drive.

Knoxville College, Knoxville, May 2017

Knoxville College, 901 Knoxville College Drive, Knoxville, May 2017

Knoxville College, Knoxville, May 2017

Rather than a single building, the Knox Heritage Fragile Fifteen list included the, “Knoxville College Historic District,” at number three on the list. It may seem odd to call it a district, but in the absence of a functioning college, it can no longer be called that and it covers a large area and numerous buildings at the top of the hill. It is also recognized as a “National Historic District.”

According to the Knox Heritage press release, from which the information in this article is largely derived, “Knoxville College was founded in 1875 as part of the missionary effort of the United Presbyterian Church of North America to promote religious, moral and educational leadership among freed men and women.”  It became, at its founding, the first African American college in East Tennessee.

The earliest students, most of whom would have been born into slavery, actually helped in the construction of the college. “The buildings at Knoxville College are a tribute to the creativity and resourcefulness of the student body. While pursuing their education, students assisted in the design and construction of these historic buildings using bricks they manufactured at the campus.”

McKee Hall, Knoxville College, Knoxville, May 2017

Knoxville College, 901 Knoxville College Drive, Knoxville, May 2017

 The National Historic District designation recognizes eight contributing buildings of the ten on campus. Knox Heritage emphasized six “representative” properties in their press release: McKee Hall, built in 1876 and, “largely rebuilt in 1895, following a fire.” Knox Heritage reports it, “is suffering from major structural, water and fire damage. Wallace Hall, built in 1890 as an orphanage and Elanathan Hall built in 1898 are included. Giffen Gym, built in 1929 and the President’s House, built in the 1880s are also mentioned.


Also on the list is McMillan Chapel, built in 1913, and the source of another vein of history represented by the college. It was here that some of the best known names in African American history spoke to students, including, “George Washington Carver, Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jesse Owens, William H. Hastie and Jackie Robinson.” Additionally, the college was host over the years to, “Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr.” It’s hard to imagine another local place connected with a similar list.


In summary, Knox Heritage says, “The situation at Knoxville College has hit rock bottom with all campus building standing either condemned or suffering from a severe lack of maintenance. Arson fires on campus and the fact that it is now completely vacant have heightened the critical need for immediate intervention. The school is mired in debt and the very survival of the historic campus buildings is in doubt.”


McMillan Chapel, Knoxville College, Knoxville, May 2017

McMillan Chapel, Knoxville College, Knoxville, May 2017

McMillan Chapel, Knoxville College, Knoxville, May 2017

Looking at the list of luminaries in African American history who have visited the college or spoken there, it’s hard to deny the historical value of the property. Considering the buildings were built with the hands of former slaves by brick made on site, it’s hard to argue for a lack of historical value, as well. That so many hopes and dreams passed through that hillside makes it even more significant.


So, what made me separate this place for particular focus? It was that walk around that hillside. The place got under my skin. Was it the ghost-town feel of the hillside or was it the actual spirit of what it represented for so long to so many?  Was it the sheer volume of beautiful, aging and rapidly deteriorating buildings? Probably it was all of that and more. The ghosts of the past combined with the spirit of amazing possibility.


Precisely how this collection of aging buildings can be transformed into a vibrant, useful part of our city, I’m not sure. It’s a big challenge and any endeavor undertaken will be extremely expensive. I understand there is at least one group quietly working for at least a partial solution. We simply must find a way to save this history.


  1. Rubye C. Wright says:

    It is important that the college be preserved and placed in a trust foundation that can manage and protect its legacy and carry on as a college. The college should not be sold to the highest bidder and it should not be made an affiliate of any other College or University, and placed in the control of a board of trustees and under the guidance of the Presbytery. The correct kind of fund raisers should be attempted to endow the trust with professors…

  2. Judith Black says:

    Alan, thank you for bringing this culturally historic place to our attention. I can see why it got under your skin. It got under mine just reading about it.
    The possibilities of this important place are endless–with the right investment to revitalize the spirit that surely lives in the walls of each building. I can really see this treasure as a place to inspire and serve African American youth and white youth in East TN. This is a project beckoning the citizens of Knoxville to germinate. ????

  3. Sue Murrian says:

    Allthough this is probably a pipe dream, it would be wonderful to see Knoxville College continue as an institution to educate young black men. I believe that at its inception, it served as both a college and a boarding school. What a gift it would be to the neighborhood To reestablish a community involved educational institution.

  4. M. Turner says:

    I have heard that KARM was in talks to try and buy half of the property. I am unsure to the validity of those claims and why they would want to purchase any portion of the land. I did get confirmation from a current employee of KARM substantiate the claim.

    • That’s a neat idea–the college grounds and buildings would make a great all-in-one site for homeless/transitional housing and supportive-care needs, with extra room for medical, social-services, etc. if the buildings could be rehabbed.

      • Sort of like the Lakeshore campus once was–and could have been again, if it had not been torn down.

      • I totally agree. I live right next to the college and seeing all these buildings and history be lost to nothing is sad. So much could be done with all these buildings. A great location to help the poor and sick of knoxville. Why wont someone buy it??

  5. Agree with these thoughts….but where are the minority owned businesses that could make the renovation of the College possible. Why have they not stepped forward with a plan? Surely there are some movers and shakers in Atlanta or Chicago for instance, that could make restoration possible. There are many alumni of Knoxville College, some prominant, that could help I believe. Don’t understand why those folks have not stepped up to the plate with a plan.

    • Ms.S. Woods says:

      Well, still alive and just wondering ? Why don’t the tax payers money of knoxville contribute to the devistation of their own ruins. They paid for the new buildings of the old kkk just neighbor to the historically proud college of knoxville in 1990??? We are thriving black americans strong of our contributions educating whites and blacks,in 2017.

      • Concerned Citizen says:

        Maybe if Mayor Burchett can sell the A.J. Building, the “new” Knox County school board could move to the old Knoxville College and help with its preservation.

        An alternative thought might be to combine the Pellissippi State campus(es) from Liberty and Magnolia onto this site.

        That entire 1-40 corridor in the heart of Knoxville is Knoxville’s front door.

  6. John Stuart says:

    It’s been falling apart for more than twenty years. Better to pull it down than let it fall into ruin. UT could have helped by annexing it and increasing their minority student numbers, but there’s no money to be made. Sad to see 🙁

    • William mcbee says:

      I remember whenUT offered to go in with KC and have like a UT Knoxville College but KC talked about we want to remain a Black College. They wanted the money just not UT name or their say in KC affairs .

  7. Ken Sparks says:

    I agree this historic structure must be preserved. How many colleges were attended by students who once helped make the bricks and construct the buildings? Who knows how many people have transformed their lives by attending one of the only schools they could attend? If for no other reason, the historic people who spoke there (G.W. Carver, B.T. Washington, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, F. Douglas, MLK, etc.) would justify preserving the structures. Also, it happens to border a partially restored Mechanicsville, which continues to improve as a community. KC could become a nucleus of activity for the community as either another education facility or an incubator for small business startups. It seems KC would make a suitable extn. campus for Pell. State more than UT since the nearest Pell. State campus is not exactly walking distance from Mechanicsville. And, Pell State, which is busting at the seams with student population, is about to become a FREE college for TN residents. There must surely be a land grant available for converting and restoring that campus. And, I agree that it would be best served if the developer was a minority group instead of a deep-pockets investor seeking to make another million $. There’s already a thriving Wesley House Community Center and the Beardsley Community Farm next door (both on Reynolds St.), which could also serve as catalysts for activities at a restored KC.

    • Anonymous says:

      Agree about the Pell. State analogy. Interestingly enough, isn’t Mayor Burchett proposing a new BMX park in South Knoxville? Wasn’t there criticism about not funding a new elementary or middle school in East Knoxville? What if Pell. State (Magnolia) moved to K.C. and the old Pell. State became a new elementary or middle school? An interesting thought.

      • Ken Sparks says:

        yes, if Pell State on Magnolia would move to a restored Knox College (more central to urban area), then, the school they vacate on Magnolia could be a perfect location for the elem. or middle school needed in East Knox. Everybody wins.

  8. gregory r. austin says:

    I grew up in the vicinity of Rule High School and Knoxville College. I played sports against some of the “toughies” from that neighborhood. I have watched over the years the deterioration with dismay. I would love to see a coalition of MINORITY developers save these areas. We do not need another redevelopment that serves and profits those with ready monetary resources. Where are the minority based developers? Could we not figure a way to fund a group that would insure quality restoration that would suit that specific area’s needs. One that would spur other economic resurgence and community pride. These historic buildings need local community input not just some outside entrepreneur looking to cash in.

  9. Anonymous says:

    With Pellissippi State (Magnolia) and the University of Tenn. next door, it will be hard for Knoxville College to attract local students to its campus. If Pellissippi wished to relocate to the Knoxville College campus that might ensure that it would continue as an academic center. Perhaps U.T. could use it as an extension center?

    There has also been talk of the Knox County Board of Education leaving the Andrew Johnson building downtown. Perhaps they could be convinced to relocate to Knoxville College continuing its tradition of being an educational facility. Another possibility is relocating the L&N S.T.E.M. campus to K.C. It would be nice if the Beck Cultural Center would also consider relocating to the campus. Lots of options exist although they may not be popular. Knox. College is an important part of our history and should be part of our future as well.

  10. Less than 2 miles from Market Square but seems like a world away because of being on the other side of the gigantic interstate interchange.

  11. spinetingler says:

    Those stained glass windows need to be boarded up ASAP for protection.

  12. Mavis C Weaver says:

    Alan ,so glad you wrote this piece. I really hope someone will step forward to save these buildings.

    Connie Weaver
    Myrtle Beach,SC

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