Magnolia: Whispers from History and Conversations for the Present

Magnolia Corridor Project, Knoxville, July 2018

William Faulkner in Requem for a Nun said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The quote is instructive today as the United States deals with its past on many fronts. A nation whose past includes genocide of an entire race to acquire land to establish its boundaries and enslavement of another race to secure its national economy is destined to struggle with the aftermath for, as it turns out, centuries.

On a local level, the past has met the present recently in the form of online outrage and social media consternation over the engraving of the name “Magnolia” on a monument which will serve as an entrance to east Knoxville. As is often the case, social media tends to offer more heat than light. Honest conversations featuring conflicting views rarely lead toward consensus or, even more modestly, respectful disagreement.

For this reason, I asked Arin Streeter to frame the argument for omitting the name “Magnolia” from the monument and then I asked city officials to explain their position in the hopes of adding a little light to the situation. We may not agree, but perhaps we can more closely approximate respectful disagreement.

Arin is an architect with Brewer Ingram Fuller. He is known by neighbors for his exacting research into Knoxville’s history, in the form of house histories for the Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville home tours, interpretive signage on the devastation of Urban Renewal at the Mabry-Hazen House Museum, and documentation of the works of George F. Barber.

Here’s Aaron’s perspective, based on the historical context:

The grand boulevard named Magnolia Avenue was completed in 1888, linking a disconnected network of earlier streets – west of first creek, it had been known as Park Street; east of Bertrand, through the old Shieldstown settlement, it had been named Craig Street. Wide and modern, the new boulevard replaced old Rutledge Pike, now McCalla Avenue, as the main eastern route out of the city of Knoxville. The name “Magnolia” was given to the new street in honor of Mrs. Magnolia Branner, mother of former mayor of Knoxville H. Bryan Branner. At the time, she occupied an impressive mansion sitting upon an 8-acre lot on the south side of Magnolia Ave., east of Myrtle Street.

Magnolia Branner had arrived in Knoxville with her husband George in 1859, purchasing the old Shields Octagon House east of the city. Both were from exceedingly wealthy plantation families, and had landholdings in Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Other Branners, notably George’s brothers Benjamin and William, also moved to Knox County, purchasing large tracts of land.

Interestingly, Magnolia Avenue is not the first thing ever to have been named after Magnolia Branner. The New York Times reported on July 18, 1855, that the steamer “Magnolia Branner,” built in Louisville just the year before, while en route to New Orleans on the Red River, caught fire and sank, taking with it 1,074 bales of slave-picked cotton.

Because the fortunes of the Branners were inextricably tied to slavery. The Thomasville Georgia “Watchman” on June 21, 1854, carried a notice from J.A. McLendon, acting as agent for George M. Branner, offering a $30 reward for the return of the runaway slave “Warner, thirty-five, yellow complexion, and a good painter.” Warner had been bought from Peter E. Love and had a wife at Simon D. Hadley’s. Indeed, George Branner cited as one of the inducements to relocating to Knoxville the “great speculation in negroes” in Louisiana driving up their prices.

Most people probably don’t know that in the old property records of every county in the South, amongst the careful records of property transfers and loans and indentures in the heavy old deed books, are matter-of-factly interspersed, written in the same careful handwriting by the same county clerks, the terrible records of the sale of slaves – men, women, children. They were, after all, property, just like anything else, and very valuable. Given the brief span of time between George and Magnolia arriving in Knox County and the Civil War, there are no records of slave sales by either of them here. There are, however, records of George’s brothers Benjamin and William each trafficking in children and adults in Knox County. Attached are copies of these “property” deeds; the handwriting is old-fashioned and sometimes difficult to decipher, so the text is transcribed below:

Bill of Sale

Phillip Shetterly to B.M. Branner

Rec’d of B.M. Branner twenty three hundred dollars, in full payment for four negroes. Boy Chelson, his wife Fillis or Easter, and their two children Mary & Peter. All aforesaid negroes I warrant to be healthy, sensible, and sound Slaves for life. I further warrant and defend the title of said negroes, against all claims whatsoever. Given under my hand and seal January 12, 1859.

Phillip Shetterly

Registered January 25, 1859

William Craig, Clerk

Second Bill of Sale

Bill of Sale

Branner to Humes and Humes to Branner

Know all men by these presents that we William A. Branner and William Y.C. Humes of Tennessee have this 31st day of July 1860 made the following barter and exchanges to wit: the said Branner barters, exchanges and transfers his boy Charles of about the age of 14 years to W.Y.C. Humes and also pays to him the sum of one hundred and twenty-five dollars, the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged in consideration whereof the same Humes barters, exchanges and transfers to the said Branner his negro boy Frank of about the age of 15 and they mutual warrant said Boys to each other as slaves for life, sound and sensible, and they mutually warrant the title to said Boys against the lawful claims of all persons.

W.A. Branner

W.Y.C. Humes

Registered July the 31st 1860

William Craig, Clerk

Why is any of this relevant now? One of the stranger aspects of the Magnolia Streetscapes Project currently being undertaken by the City of Knoxville is the intended “rebranding” of the whole area as simply “Magnolia” through the construction of a 25-foot, $68,000 monument sign. Despite efforts by members of the community to make the City aware of the problematic nature of this name, first privately, then a little more publicly, the City has proved intractable. Residents suggested a simple solution – the area has already had a name, “Park City,” for a hundred years, so why not simply exchange eight letters, not yet even installed, for a different eight letters — “Park City” instead of “Magnolia.” Inexplicably, the city has arranged meetings with concerned members of the community only to tell them that it will not be changed.

History is complicated. We obviously can’t change the name of everything in Knoxville with any connection to slavery – Washington and Jefferson Avenues would have to go. And Jackson Avenue. And Monroe Street. And Polk Street. The distinction here is the newness. A new monument, a new name for a sweeping area.

Magnolia Avenue has also been, since the 1920s, “General Robert E. Lee Memorial Highway,” but no reasonable person would suggest building a brand new monument in Knoxville renaming an entire neighborhood “General Lee,” claiming ignorance. By that same token, it’s unconscionable that in 2019 we’re building a huge new monument plastered with a name rechristening the heart of East Knoxville after a matriarch of one of the South’s most prominent slaveholding families.

Please write to Mayor Rogero and your City Council to let them know that this is important to you.

Map of Park City

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For an insight into how our elected officials feel about the matter, I reached out to to several and got responses from some of them. I also asked Bob Booker, noted local authority on African-American history in Knoxville. He said he had “absolutely no opinion!” He said he’s lived within three blocks of Magnolia Avenue for all but three of his eighty-five years and all he wants is for the orange cones to be removed from his pathway. A little levity might be warranted.

I received a statement from Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie who represents the district, who said, “I’m very familiar with this topic and do not support the petition to have Historic Park City listed as it brands Magnolia Ave as such and there are other communities and residents in that area who do not feel it is fair to identify one neighborhood on the Streetscape marker.”

Councilman-at-large George Wallace said, “I support using multiple names to identify communities along Magnolia.  Park City. Burlington. Holston Hills.  Local names create a more personal identity, sense of place, acknowledge the city’s rich history and create an intimate feeling.  Using local, historical names along Magnolia will help identify our local communities rather than just a street name.”

Councilman-at-large Finbarr Saunders pointed out simply that he’s ,”always known this as Magnolia Avenue.  I have always been aware of the Park City area without knowing the area that encompassed.”

County Commissioner Evelyn Gill responded at length:

My husband and I have lived for over 12 years in our beautiful home, which is almost 100 years old, on Linden Avenue in the historic area known as Park City, one block off of Magnolia Avenue. I strongly disagree with the City’s effort to rename Park City after one of the avenues that runs through it.

It is unacceptable for a few individuals in the City Mayor’s office – none of whom live in Park City – to decide they want to rename it . . . 

The origins of Park City date back into the 19th Century, and it was incorporated as a Tennessee municipality in 1907. Then, in 1917, the city of Knoxville annexed Park City – not Magnolia.

To change the name of Park City negates this area’s considerable economic, cultural, and educational contributions that are inextricably connected to the historic significance of this community and its relationship with the rest of Knoxville.

Magnolia Corridor Project, Knoxville, July 2018

I also spoke at some length with City of Knoxville Redevelopment Director, Dawn Michelle Foster. She has directed the city’s efforts to revitalize the Magnolia Avenue Corridor which she pointed out was first published in 2009. The intent of the city’s efforts, she said, is to help produce future investment.

“We respect the historic integrity of all the communities,” she said, noting efforts along the corridor such as the facade program, rezoning efforts and the historic preservation which the city has supported. She also pointed out that there have been several iterations of the streetscape plan and the monument, some of which have been mandated by TDOT which controls the state highway. One iteration, which featured columns on each side of the street, for example, was vetoed by TDOT.

In response to community complaints about a parking lot on Magnolia which had been purchased by KAT, the city chose to locate the monument on that side of Magnolia to, with one stroke, satisfy TDOT and address some of the community concerns about the parking lot.

The monument itself, she pointed out, is not to label a community, but to label a corridor in the same way that the monument on Cumberland does not name the community, but rather the corridor. It also, she said, is not intended to reference a person, but a corridor which has now been in existence for well over 100 years. The concern, she noted, did not arise in numerous community meetings and the monument was approved by TDOT and city council.

That said, she pointed out a middle way: the monument designating the corridor doesn’t need to be, nor is it intended to be the end of city efforts in the area and communities such as Park City can be acknowledged contextually in other ways. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and her department, she said, is consulting with the Knoxville History Project in an effort to find ways to mark and celebrate the history of the communities through which Magnolia traverses.

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No matter what happens, everyone will not be happy. The only question is what we do with those feelings going forward. We have to acknowledge that the relationship between the city and this area of town is fraught with historic conflict, some of which is much more recent than that discussed above by Arin.

Hopefully, we’ve entered a better era in which dialog early in the decision making process and throughout can produce better outcomes for everyone. It’s important that we are able to trust each other, disagree and move forward. It’s an elusive hope. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Comments

  1. Yes, many people on this side of town attended many meetings over many years and were supportive of refurbishing Magnolia Ave. It desperately needs reinvestment. But, many of us also feel that there was a lot of “bait and switch” going on as the reality of the cost of redoing infrastructure (that ironically likely was installed a century+ ago by Park City) became apparent. So, unless folks attended every single meeting, they could not be aware that plans were rapidly changing just before project implementation. The RFP for the sign, including specs, actually was published in the paper before the new, revised design was shown at a public meeting. It also is incredible that people administering this project had no knowledge of the official name of this part of the city. Long-term geographic names do indeed matter.

    • Debra Bean says

      This situation seems very similar to Recode Knoxville!
      If you miss just ONE meeting – it’s almost as if you never attended a meeting at all!
      Significant changes are made swiftly! Don’t Blink!!!

  2. Come on people, IT’S JUST A NAME ON A SIGN. I moved to parkridge a couple of years ago because of its affordability and proximity to downtown. I have great pride in my neighborhood, but couldn’t possibly care any less about a sign and what it says. It’s shameful that there are adults who are so offended by a silly sign. Everyone on here whining about the sign needs to grow up and get over it. The sign is happening-

    Thanks for sharing, urbanguy. I love checking out this blog for informative articles, just like this. Not sure what we would all do without you.

    • To be clear: it’s the name of Magnolia Branner, matriarch of a Knoxville Confederate elite slaveholding family on a sign. If you don’t see a problem with that, that’s your business. I see a problem with it, and I don’t think it’s shameful of me to say it’s not right to put up the sign, especially when many area residents don’t want the sign and if we have to have it, prefer it say “Park City,” which is the historic name for both sides of Magnolia out to Chilhowee Park.

      • Mark Yeager says

        I’m sure if everyone researched different parts of town/street names/building names/business names going back 150 years, we could find something that would offend someone. I guess you’ll just have to be offended everyday driving by it. Hopefully you’ll be able to survive. This is coming from someone who is Jewish- and we have been targeted and oppressed for the last 2,000 years, btw.

        It’s a sign. Worry about having pride in your community and making it the best place it can be.

        • You are right about being able to find offensive names in other places. But this is a new sign. Why continue to honor a slave owner? Every one of the people I know that are against the name on the sign are very proud of our community…why would you assume we aren’t?

        • Mark, naming the community by its 100+ year historic name is “about having pride in your community and making it the best place it can be.”

      • Yes, people dug up a reason to get offended about a name that people would otherwise think was just a reference to a tree.

        • Dave, the point is that the name is NOT a reference to a tree. And no one dug it up. Some of us were already aware of the origin of the name.

  3. It needs a more hip name, like EDoTo (East of DownTown). (This is a South Park reference and meant to be humorous).

  4. I don’t get the big deal about the historic marker. What is even more confusing is the people in the area who don’t want things to change. It’s a beautiful, historic area. But there isn’t even a supermarket anywhere. In order for development to happen, the area needs to be beautified, because it has been neglected for so long. But apparently the people there just want to be neglected.

    • Meg McMuffin says

      We do not want the area to be neglected. I think most of my neighbors are very happy that something is actually being done for East Knoxville. This is about a name on a sign.

      • When the cleanup/beautification program was first announced, there were protests decrying “gentrification.” Now this sign is being protested. I’m sure when a supermarket is.announced we’ll see similar naysaying.

        • The sign was a late addition with no public input. I supported the project from the beginning until it was obvious there was no public input.

  5. John Duffy says

    I receive the impression that residents in the affected areas are mostly upset that their neighborhood identities will be disrespected or removed by naming the large gateway monument ‘Magnolia’. It might more accurately be named ‘Magnolia Corridor’, with additional signages throughout welcoming people to each of the different neighborhoods within the eastside areas.

  6. Scott Rupe says

    KUG…Thank you for offering a platform for some semblance of civil discourse!

  7. When I was growing up in a snotty, rarefied neighborhood outside a major city in the Northeast, there came a time when some non-white visitors to the enclave pointed out that the “lawn jockeys” of some of the wealthier homes were considered to be quite racist and requested something be done about this. The wealthy estate owners scoffed and refused to consider the impact of their statuary on people who found them offensive. Not long after that, the non-white visitors to the enclave, who happened to work as trash collectors, found themselves uncharacteristically clumsy in the course of their duties. This resulted in the disputed lawn jockey statues becoming drenched in wet garbage on a consistent basis. Soon after that, nearly every lawn jockey in the immediate vicinity was either removed or painted a solid color, and the enclave residents managed to live with the injustice.

  8. Kenneth Moffett says

    I’ve been party to several “monumental signing” projects, and frankly don’t see the need in many cases. Such projects put me in mind of the pompous brick gateways to west Knoxville housing developments. Surely the irony here is apparent: the city wants to do the right thing by a neglected part of town, while the residents feel insulted thereby.

  9. Will there be an east-facing “Magnolia” sign just west of the
    I-40 overpass, at the entrance to Holston Hills, or at the Asheville Highway split? If not, why not? It would be a shame for the current short-timer mayor to waste $68,000 only to have the sign painted over, bulldozed, or otherwise vandalized in the middle of the night by patriotic neighborhood-loving citizens whose voices were ignored by this administration.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      You didn’t just really attach your name and email address in a public forum to a threat against public property, did you?

      • No, of course not! This discussion just brings to mind the recent happenings at the UT Rock, what with the polarized and heated feelings on both sides.

  10. “the City has proved intractable” – let me guess. Bill Lyons was involved in this.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Bill Lyons is involved in most things regarding the city, as are others. There is no need for an implicit attack on someone.

  11. Tanner Jessel says

    Re: “the concern […] did not arise in numerous community meetings,” let’s please be clear no public meetings were held on the late addition “gateway monument.” There were three meetings with these semi-public groups: Town Hall East, East Knoxville Business and Professional Association, and Parkridge Community Organization. Various people could not attend these meetings for various reasons, but have subsequently shared their concerns privately. Nearly 200 individuals have since shared their opinion on the Change.org petition that was set up (https://www.change.org/p/dmfoster-knoxvilletn-gov-monument-sign-should-welcome-you-to-historic-park-city-instead-of-magnolia).

    It’s telling that there were no public meetings concerning the late addition to the design. The single public meeting– an “open house” was set up as a “meet and greet.” It was not an opportunity to provide feedback / comments.

    The timeline leading up to this unwanted monument is laid out clearly here:

    https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1lnU0VMjZDoB2F1SKCITiRONOm4X9s7LN8ayqOvK_ceU&font=Default&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=650&fbclid=IwAR0MhADtAAiOHT0UGums_mPe_3ngoUFAoTuwyq4lwJwBMWHlmSktdi4HN5o

  12. Well I must say moving from Gay St to Parkridge has been most interesting. So many people in this neighborhood are so proud of where they live and yet have such a wide range of opinions. I think a piece of the racist past of this area has been left out. Through its early history the Old City was a place for low income black people to live. As the city grew they were pushed out to the east side. In the 50s as the highway divided the town and talk of public housing being built in the area the majority of the white people in the area got out as quick as they could. Now after years of ignoring the area, with the exception of Chilhowee Park, people from other areas now have opinions of what it is and should be. The reality is that throughout the south in any major city they all have one thing in common. Magnolia Avenue and Martin Luther Kind Boulevard run through prodominantly black neighborhoods even a few rappers like Juvenile have taken notice of this. So I guess if there is a stigma attached to Magnolia let it be. Im proud to live in the area. I have a nice old historic house, friendly neighbors from all walks of life and I still feel like I’m part of the city only being a little over a mile away.

    If you actually drive through Parkridge you would discover we already have multiple neighborhood signs. So does the Old North, and Fourth and Gill. All of them have one under 40 on 6th avenue and each neighborhood has their own when you get in them. I guess I am unsure what having a big Park City sign on Magnolia would do. This isnt a cookie cutter neighborhood off of Northshore where we need to advertise.

    • No one wants the sign to be “Parkridge”. Park City and Parkridge are two different things, as Lynne described below.

    • Tanner Monroe Jessel says

      Urban Land Institute advises a healthy corridor is “engaged and supported by people who live, work, and travel along the corridor,” adding a key feature is a “defined identity, drawing on the arts and culture of the community and supported by creative placemaking programming.”

      $72,000 spent on the Magnolia Gateway Monument ($68,000 for the masonry; ~$4,400 for the lettering) might have gone far in achieving that ideal.

      Examples of “creative placemaking” include the 6th Avenue Mural Project (murals with the neighborhood names) and the historic-style street signs that saturate most every “streetcar suburb” in Knoxville.

      Conversely, the Magnolia Gateway Monument is an example of a generic subdivision marker sorely lacking “sense of place” and failing to draw on the arts or culture of the local community.

  13. Betty Clemens says

    A real city cannot function with these restrictive interpretations of the past. Slaves were labeled “property” by the sellers, not the buyers. All ethnic groups have endured prejudice here in America, having to earn respect with each successive generation. Port cities did it faster than inland communities but we are all humans seeking same rather than different. Knoxville needs to revere its past, correct its present, and focus on its future.

  14. Meanwhile in the rest of the world, there are people starving- who own nothing and are literally risking their lives to come to our country for a better future. Yet- Here we are, sitting in our climate controlled offices having a discussion about a sign and there are people being triggered by it.

    Really puts things into perspective that there are so many larger problems in the world and our own community than a lousy sign the city is spending $68,000 on. But thats none of my business.

  15. Regardless of the handwringing and whinging, the sign is happening and, ultimately, it is a good thing for Knoxville and that area.

  16. Ann Bennett says

    If the intent is to identify a corridor, as stated by Ms. Foster, then modify the name on the sign to reflect that intent, adding the word “corridor” or the word”avenue” to the sign. Then we’d see Magnolia Corridor, etc. It would obviously not be a neighborhood name, but the idea of using the sign to transmit the feeling of a unique place would be preserved.

  17. Calvin Cassady says

    I take issue with Councilwoman McKenzie’s assertion that this will brand an entire area as one neighborhood. Historic Park City is shown side-by-side on the newer historic brown street signs in Edgewood, Parkridge, and Chilhowee Park neighborhoods. Park City is shown on current and historic USGS quads as well as Google Maps as the overarching name of the whole area from the Asheville Hwy split to this marker. I also take issue with Dawn Foster’s assertion that this concern did not arise in several community meetings. That is because the content of this marker was vague until the decision had been made privately without community input to name this whole side of town Magnolia. When I first moved to Knoxville in 2010 I was strongly discouraged from purchasing a home in this area due to the stigma of Magnolia Ave. Although we love our neighborhoods on the east side and I have always felt 100% safe and comfortable anywhere at any time, there is still a stigma to the corridor. We can and will slowly change that. But as usual the city seems to paper over our aspirations and concerns on the east side. Taking the time to hear us out and respond to popular demand for something better than a generic west knox style subdivision entry sign proclaiming a generic and disrespected name for our home would be a start to changing that.

  18. Park City is a SUBURB, like Bearden and Fountain City, and has been a Knoxville SUBURB since the independent, incorporated Park City was annexed by the city of Knoxville in 1917. Park City encompasses multiple neighborhoods on both sides of Magnolia Ave., including Chilhowee Hills and Parkridge to the north, and Park City proper to the south. Park City high school was on Linden Ave. Are all Knoxville SUBURBS now going to be known by their main thoroughfares? Will a large brick monument that says “Broadway” be placed next to the duck pond? How much more of the east side’s history is Knoxville going to erase?

  19. John Owens says

    Thanks for a very interesting back story on the Magnolia controversy!
    I think there is a simple solution to the problem that seems not to have been considered: DITCH THE 25’ $68,000 SIGN. What value does it add ? It seems only to add confusion as to what it is supposed to signify; a neighborhood or a corridor? I doubt that the “corridor” is or will be recognized as “Magnolia” from Park City to Holston Hills.

  20. Either leave the column blank or revert to the name the area was known as prior to being named Magnolia. That way the historic past is preserved.

  21. The problem is the fact that the “monument” is on one side of Magnolia only, and to most people will appear to designate the entrance to the neighborhood on the north side of the street, as would be the case in countless subdivision “signature entrances.” The only way it will clearly be seen to designate the entire corridor is to revert to the original plan flanking both sides of the street. Otherwise, the only logical thing is to change “Magnolia” to “Parkridge” which is the name of the neighborhood.

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