KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- In 1926, more than 50 years after slavery was abolished in America, Carter G. Woodson developed a week dedicated to black history.
Woodson is considered a pioneer in the study of African-American history and earned a doctorate degree from Harvard, CNN reported. That work later became the basis for Black History Month, which officially began in 1976.
Movements big and small from black Americans have created moments of change, hope and have shined a spotlight on the challenges that African Americans have and continue to face in the U.S. There are many notable figures in history to celebrate, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but did you know that there are prominent African American leaders right here in East Tennessee?
The Clinton 12
Some of the most significant figures in the history of desegregation were children from Clinton, Tennessee. Known as the Clinton 12, Jo Ann Boyce, Bobby Cain, Theresser Caswell, Minnie Ann Jones, Gail Ann Upton, Ronald Hayden, William Latham, Alvah Lambert, Maurice Soles, Robert Thacker, Regina Smith and Alfred Williams, made history when they integrated Clinton High School in August 26, 1969. They were greeted with threats and racial slurs, but their courage changed the course of history and still resonates today.
Born a slave in 1844, Cal Johnson eventually became a member of Knoxville's city council and one of the most successful people in the state. Knoxville historian Bob Booker told WVLT News that Johnson, who was Knoxville's first black millionaire, owned several saloons and Knoxville's racetrack.
William Francis Yardley
William F. Yardley was a prominent figure in Knoxville politics in the 1870s. He served on the Board of Alderman from 1872 to 1873 and ran for governor of Tennessee in 1876. Though he lost the race, the City of Knoxville said he was affectionately nicknamed "Governor Yardley" by locals. He was also the publisher and editor of Knoxville's first African-American newspaper, the Knoxville Examiner.
Moses Smith was Knoxville's first black policeman and was elected to the Board of Alderman in 1874 and 1878.
Daniel Brown was sworn in as Knoxville's first black mayor in 2011 to serve out Governor Bill Haslam's term. Brown was born and raised in Knoxville, and he attended Austin High School before he graduated from Tennessee State University. He was drafted and fought in the Vietnam War before coming home and joining the Postal Service. He served on the city council representing the sixth district before being elected by fellow council members to serve as interim mayor. Knoxville's first female mayor, Madeline Rogero, followed him and made history, as well.
Reverend Harold Middlebrook
Reverend Harold Middlebrook, of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, has connections to one of history's most prolific Civil Rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middlebrook once stood with Dr. King, and he also launched an annual Emancipation Proclamation Event to make sure people remember "that our foreparents went through all kinds of hardships, all kinds of abuse, in order to get us to this point."
Nikki Giovanni is a notable poet who was born in Knoxville in 1943. She has received many notable awards, including the Gwendolyn Brooks Award and the Langston Hughes Award. She was also the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage award and was named one of Oprah Winfrey's 25 Living Legends. Many of her works include southern references, including "Knoxville, Tennessee."
If you visit Heritage Square in Knoxville, you'll likely see the 13-foot-tall statue dedicated to famous writer Alex Haley. Haley is most known for his Pulitzer-Prize winning work Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which details the life of an African man sold into slavery and his descendants, including Haley himself. While he was born in New York, he spent the end of his life in Clinton, Tennessee.
W. James Taylor
W. James Taylor is a well-known painter, who once worked as a porter in the 60s for the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. The City of Knoxville said Taylor quit his job in 1963 and joined a desegregation protest that was occurring outside of the theater. He launched Geneva Galleries and opened it in 2014.
Other notable figures
Paul Hogue was a notable basketball player in the NBA and was born in Knoxville in 1940. In 1962, he was the number 1 draft pick by the NBA's New York Knicks and later played for the Baltimore Bullets.
While Knoxville had its own African-American volunteer fire department since the late 1800s, it wasn't until 1952 that the City of Knoxville's fire department integrated. Luther Bradley, along with 10 other men, became the first black firefighters to be hired and trained by the Knoxville Fire Department. In 1980, he was promoted to Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal.
In 1976, Geraldetta Dozier was hired as the City of Knoxville's first female area transit driver, which was called Knoxville Transit Lines at the time. Dozier told the city she was inspired after seeing a woman bus driver on Harriet Tubman street when she walked home one night.
In 2019, Brianna Mason, Miss Greene County, became the first woman of color to ever be crowned Miss Tennessee in the Miss America Pageant system. She said, "I'm here to tell you that it does not matter what your skin color is. It does not matter what your religion is. You can do anything that you want." A school teacher in Murfreesboro, Mason studied at the University of Tennessee.
Dr. Harold Conner, Jr.
Dr. Harold Conner, Jr. was the first African-American to participate in the University of Tennessee's engineering co-op program, and he was also the first black person to be honored as a fellow by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.
The historically black college has a storied history and was originally founded in 1875 to promote leadership among freed men and women. It went on to graduate notable individuals including Mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama, Johnny Ford, Florida A&M football coach Jake Gaither, actor Palmer Williams, Jr., and Edith Irby Jones, the first female president of the National Medical Association.
Highlander Education and Research Center
Highlander has trained labor organizers and civil-rights leaders including King and Rosa Parks since 1932. Over the years, it has been investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, spied on by a segregationist Georgia governor and marched on by the Ku Klux Klan. It was started as the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, but a campaign to brand it as a "Communist training school" ultimately resulted in the center losing its charter, its building and its land in 1961. It reopened under a new name in Knoxville, where it endured Klan marches, fire bombs and arrests, ultimately moving again to rural New Market in 1972.
Odd Fellows Cemetery
The Odd Fellows Cemetery was established between 1880 and 1885 when four separate African American social organizations bought the land to create the cemetery. It is named after the Banner Lodge Chapter of the Odd Fellows Fraternal Order that was established in February 1882. Many prominent African Americans are buried there, including Calvin “Cal” Johnson, Knoxville’s first African American millionaire, and William Yardley, a former City Alderman and 1876 candidate for governor of Tennessee.
CNN reported Woodson chose the month because Frederick Douglass, a man who escaped slavery and later become a historic figure in the abolition movement, celebrated his birthday on February 14.
He also chose it because President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, celebrated his birthday on February 12.
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