McKee Hall, Knoxville College, 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.
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.”
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.”
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.