East Knoxville karate studio home of Black history masters for nearly four decades

Published: Feb. 21, 2021 at 3:16 PM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The lessons passed on to save a life are the same Grandmaster Willie Wilson hopes will change one.

Hundreds of inner city children and adults getting the same teachings for nearly five decades at the Karate Five Association in East Knoxville. It started with five martial arts gurus with the desire to fight a different opponent, which in the 70′s was rising crime.

“There’s always going to be existing problems, but if you don’t take care of the one you got, things will get worse,” Wilson said.

They’re giving space for children, and adults, to learn self-defense and an outlet to release anger.

“You get that young person, or that person, and you show them that there’s a better way than just being hateful,” Wilson said.

In the midst of it all, members found themselves making history.

One of the five, Melbert Lee Sr.,became the first African-American in Knoxville to earn a black belt in karate. Continuing his legacy is his son, Master Melbert Lee Jr.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” said Lee Jr. “He encouraged. He was very spiritual and always looked at the positive.”

Lee Jr. is one of several masters inducted into the Isshinryu Hall of Fame. First to do it was original Karate Five member Master Linda Wilson.

“I was the first Black, so it was very much an honor to me and it still is,” Linda Wilson said.

The trailblazers each laying out a path for the youth: awarding college scholarships and helping mold young men who would go on to become fathers.

“They say a family that trains together stays together,” Kenneth Jenkins, a returning student, said.

Jenkins’ karate journey started at 16-years-old He’s now back with his children, hoping they pick up on those same life teachings.

“It touches my heart to see them training as much as they do and to want it,” Jenkins said.

It’s the lessons that keep on giving.

“What little bit that we can put back into this community we know that it’s gonna make a difference,” Willie Wilson said.

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