Since the end of the Civil War and well into the 20th century, there has always been diversity in the Model City, but today's African-American community wants to see more.
“Kingsport has a long way to go to really be a ‘model city’ in terms of increased diversity,” says Douglas Releford, president of the Sons and Daughters of Douglass, the alumni association dedicated to the memory of Kingsport’s former all-black elementary-high school. “In terms of government, in terms of education, in terms of lifestyle, there is nothing to bring African-Americans here or to keep black children here once they graduate high school.”
Veteran Kingsport school teacher and Douglass High School graduate Jill Ellis admits “those African-American students of professional business have not found a reason to stay here. Their energies have carried them away to other cities. Now, they only come back home to Kingsport to visit the older ones still here.”
Jack Pierce agrees. His family origins are on the south side of Bays Mountain, but his dad later moved to what is now considered Old Kingsport, just west of the Netherland Inn to raise his family. Pierce has lived in Riverview most of his life, at the center of Kingsport’s African-American community.
“Riverview is a good place to live,” he says. “The quality of life here is great. Everybody’s kids in the neighborhood have all turned out great for the most part, but then many of the kids move away and raise their own children in the bigger cities. That’s not good for business and it’s not good for Kingsport.”
He says over the years it’s always been all about jobs and social activities for African-Americans, and it still is.
“Jobs and a social life are the answer.”
Sullivan County, 24,935; African-American, 1,535
Long before Kingsport became a city and since the Civil War, people of color have been part of what was then King’s Port on the Holston River. Bristol had its black population, and so did the King’s Port area.
“Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Pierce says, “a company called Quillen and Blair decided to sell property at Rotherwood. They cut it up into lots and sold them to black folks. My dad lived out there — also the Burdines, the Lyles, the Manises, the Dickersons and at one time the Rays had homes out there, among others. Blacks and whites got along well back then,” he says. “Everybody was just middle-class working folk during those times, who came and stayed here because so many companies were hiring.”
Ellis remembers hearing about that as well. She was raised in the Rotherwood Mansion, where her parents worked for John B. Dennis, one of Kingsport’s founding fathers.
Kingsport, 5,692; African-American, 454
Three years after Kingsport’s incorporation, the African-American population began growing, although the largest increase was still decades off. Still, Old Kingsport found that it could not hold the influx of new black residents.
The availability of good jobs back then convinced the black workforce to want to live better. Pierce says one company had more of an influence than others.
“Penn-Dixie Cement had more of an influence in moving African-Americans from Old Kingsport into the Sullivan, Dale, Maple, Oak and Walnut (Sevier) Avenue areas because their black workers could get more affordable housing there,” Pierce says.
“The cement plant was hard, labor-intensive work that paid well. Blacks from Old Kingsport who had settled on Cement Hill above downtown got better homes in the new area between Sullivan and Center Streets. Eventually, all of the African-Americans moved to that area from Old Kingsport and Cement Hill, and that’s when the overcrowding began. Folks began calling their out-of-town relatives, saying, ‘You need to come to Kingsport, there are jobs here’ with one family-based proviso: ‘you can stay with us until you find a place.’ ”
Although many of the alleys in the Dale, Maple, Oak and Walnut area are still there, the homes and shacks that lined the alleys are long gone. There was no indoor plumbing, sparse electricity and sometimes cardboard for walls.
Riverview resident William (“Mr. Bud”) Hickman remembers that time.
“There were a lot of undesirable homes that people were living in,” he says. “Old Man Dykes built little old cardboard houses, and he would rent to people, and you could almost see the floor, it was so shabby.”
“That was the only place for blacks to live,” Pierce says. “It was there or nothing. At one point, people from Alabama, Georgia, Carolina and the Virginias were coming in at a pretty good clip. The jobs were plentiful, but the living conditions were not.”
Pierce says that while many black workers continued to get hired at the cement plant, the Press, Mead, Borden Mills and eventually Eastman, there were other jobs available. “The black people that didn’t work in the factories got on as maids, butlers and drivers in the white folks’ homes,” he remembers. “In most of the restaurants, blacks were cooking and serving the meals. It was honorable work for a day’s wages, and most everybody was proud to at least be working.”
And the largest employer of African-American women in Kingsport? The Holston Valley Community Hospital, Pierce remembers. “All of the maids in the hospital were black,” he says. “But all of the orderlies were black, too. The hospital employed a lot of African-Americans back in the day.”
Kingsport always provided education for its African-American children, albeit “separate, but equal.” According to historical records at the Kingsport Education Association and the Sons and Daughters of Douglass Alumni website, when the city vacated the building at Oklahoma Grove in 1913 (where the location of the former Lee Elementary School, now the Cora Cox Academy is now, named after the former Douglass teacher later named a Tennessee Teacher of the Year and a National Teacher of the Year finalist), the city’s black children were educated at Oklahoma Grove. The first principal was Professor H.L. Moss, and he found the Oklahoma Grove School in bad shape ... slumping floors and holes in the walls. African-American parents requested the city build their children a new school.
In 1919, the Kingsport Board of Education heard recommendations to build two other white schools at the same time, the future Jackson Elementary, the future Lincoln Elementary, and the “Colored’ Children’s School.
The Lincoln and Jackson schools were eventually built, but the new school for “colored” children was never built; as a result, African-American children continued to attend the Oklahoma Grove School. Their parents never gave up hope, and after a new black school was built near Sullivan and Center Streets near the railroad “Y,” eventually the Board of Education funded a new, larger school at the intersection of Walnut and Myrtle Streets.
In 1928, through the help of Sears, Roebuck and Company’s Julius Rosenwald and his private school fund, a seven-room concrete and mortar school building was built on East Walnut (now Sevier) Avenue and the Bristol Highway (now East Center) Street. The Rikki Rhoten Insurance Agency sits on the site now.
The new school was named the Frederick Douglass School (also known as the Douglass-Rosenwald School), after the great African-American orator, statesman, and journalist.
Kingsport, 11, 914; African-American, 595
The years between 1930 and 1940 saw the largest increase in Kingsport’s African-American population ever. With almost 400 new black residents, overcrowding in the Dale-Oak-Maple-Sevier Avenue area in a segregated society exploded. Although jobs continued to flourish, the ramshackle homes and shanties in the alleys of the Sullivan-Dale-Oak-Maple-Sevier Street area that blacks were crowded into were simply falling apart.
Toward the end of the ’30s, black leaders were forced to demand the city provide them a new area to live.
Editor’s Note: Calvin Sneed grew up in Kingsport’s Riverview community. He has compiled a comprehensive history of African-Americans in Kingsport that is to be added to the Model City’s official history. Segments of his work will be published in the Times News every Sunday in February in honor of Black History Month.