Cal Johnson name lives on in Knoxville

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- The year was 1898 and William McKinley was president. It was also the year when the Cal Johnson building on State Street in downtown Knoxville was built.

"Cal Johnson is one of the most fascinating people who lived in this town, born a slave here in 1844," said historian Bob Booker.

But Johnson quickly rose above it, becoming a member of city council and then to become one of the wealthiest and most successful businessmen in Knoxville, even in the state.

He opened up several saloons in downtown Knoxville, even owned race horses.

"He owned the racetrack in the city of Knoxville, where Speedway Circle is today," said Booker.

Not much is left of Johnson's impact in Knoxville, except his namesake building that's now owned by Bacon and Company.

While Knox Heritage wants to put it on the Historical Registry, owner Jed Dance says there's interest in turning the 10,000 square foot, three story building into everything from a bar and grill to multi-use.

"We're going to make sure Cal is honored however we do that," said Jed Dance, owner of Bacon and Company.

Now 118 years later, Cal Johnson's memory is alive, albeit through the bricks and mortar, but still a testament to a man who rose above slavery to become one of the wealthiest men in the state.